Tuesday, May 18, 2010


When the doorbell rang the other morning, I was glad, in spite of being sick, that I had taken the time to dress. The last time the landlord stopped by to do repairs, I was still in my dressing gown when the bell rang and had felt thoroughly louche when I opened the door to him. This time, as I ran downstairs to answer, I stopped at the window on the landing to look over the driveway. No car, so it wasn’t the landlord. Maybe a neighbour calling?

But when I opened the door, I instantly – without doubt – knew who it was standing there, though they were strangers. A middle-aged couple, well-dressed in conservative business clothes, each with a determined smile that flashed on as soon as I pulled the door open.

‘Grüß Gott.’

The woman began with the ubiquitous Austrian greeting. When a stream of German followed, I was, possibly for the first time since coming here, relieved. This would be easier than usual.

I waited for a pause and then said clearly, giving no quarter to the smattering of phrases I’ve acquired, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t speak any German.’

Her brown eyes widened slightly; her lips twitched, pulling the careful smile askew. She glanced at the man next to her and tapped his arm with well-manicured fingers. Apparently he was the one with more fluent English.

‘You’ve heard about the Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ he began.

I nodded, my own smile tight. ‘Yes, of course, and I have my own spiritual beliefs.’

My standard line, employed always as the door is already swinging to. This time, they made no reply at all.

‘Good-bye.’ Pronounced firmly, punctuated by the widening of my own insincere smile.

My lack of German may have come as a relief to this pair, I thought as I climbed again the garish red-marble staircase, glad to have the intrusive interval over. But I resented having been called downstairs, away from my work, when I was not feeling well.

It doesn’t always end so smoothly. In Ireland there was a couple who called at least four times. On two occasions I had seen them from the window as they conferred by their car, parked in the road in front of the house, so I had ignored the doorbell when it rang. I didn’t care whether they had seen me or not. But twice I had unwittingly opened the door to them.

On the last occasion, the man of the pair was particularly insistent, trying to prolong the conversation. When I refused to discuss my beliefs, he wanted to know whether they were ‘Biblically based’. When I declined to answer, he inquired about my accent. He, himself, had an accent that was not native to the area, nor did either of them look like any of the people I knew locally, though he claimed they were living nearby in a house that belonged to his family. In fact, he sounded Northern Irish, by way of England.

Having prolonged the conversation through that gambit, he again pressed me about my beliefs. I shook my head, no. I referred to the time in one of my past lives, when I was raised in another church known for its door-to-door proselytising. We might as well debate politics, I told him.

‘I have my own spiritual beliefs now, and I don’t want to discuss them.’ Again I wished them a good day and began closing the door; again he persisted about my beliefs.

‘But are they Biblically based?’, he squeezed out as I pushed the door to.

‘Biblically based?’ I thought as I walked away. As though he could change my mind by proving his stripe of religion was ‘Biblically based’? Or more ‘Biblically based’ than another set of beliefs? I tried to imagine his splutter had I asked him why I should base my beliefs on an 5,000-year-old identity myth.

I wondered, as I had before, at the arrogance of those who feel the necessity to spend their time in what must be, in large part, a futile exercise to persuade others of the superiority of one set of dogmas over another. And at his own submission to the demand, for its my understanding that his god as interpreted for him by his sect requires him to spend a specified number of hours each month so engaged. But why should his persistence in the belief that he should waste his time supersede my wish that he not waste my own?

At any rate, that was a few months before we left Ireland, and I had thought he would not call on us again, though I suppose they would have evidentially gotten around to us once more. And now, having been visited by them in California as well as in Ireland, I have been introduced to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Salzburg.

The church, world wide.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Memento Mori

'So. What do you want for your birthday?'

It is his annual query, and I had been anticipating it.

I don’t need any more stuff. Other than a really, really good jar of face cream, there was nothing material to ask for.

‘I want to go to the Alte Pinakothek. Can we spend the day in Munich?’

The Alte Pinakothek is one of Europe’s most important art galleries. As an earnest and astonishingly naïve university student of art history, I had spent the day there nearly 40 years ago. Like so much of that period of my life, much of the experience is lost to memory, existing as only brief flashes of pale spectres  in a dark void. I recall, though, standing in front of the iconic self portrait of Albrecht  Dürer, full of awe not just at the work but at the incredible reality that I, the unformed and ill-informed product of the California wastelands, should be standing before it. It was standing in the precinct of God.

Yesterday I stood again before the dark panel, staring into the artist’s representation of his intense gaze as he seemed to stare back at me. I felt kinship with the man, or rather with the nearly Christ-like self image the man, dead now for nearly five centuries, had left for me to regard.

He seemed to me, yesterday, like so many writers and artists, to be driven by the desire – the need – to be seen. Not merely seen as another person but seen in his uniqueness and illuminated by his particular passion and talent. Indeed, he represents himself in the attitude of so many depictions of Christ, as though making a direct comparison. One may be forgiven the impression that  in doing so, he celebrates his own individuality and vision as standing apart, Christ-like in his solitude and in his gift. This apparent self-confidence, amounting perhaps to arrogance, stayed with me as I moved from painting to painting.

It has always been my inclination to devote the first hours in a collection of European masters to the galleries containing early art from the northern countries. I fly first to the early Flemish masters. The whimsy with which they compensated with the lack of perspective or anatomical mastery has always enchanted me. In bringing to life the metaphysical world of angels and demons, in opening a window onto heaven and hell, medieval artists created fantastical worlds where angels with bright coloured wings kneel at the feet of ethereal faced women. Tiny angels, incorporeal, peer over the edges of clouds. Through open windows and doors, the artists reveal scenes of everyday life or airy trees and jagged mountain landscapes. These details capture my imagination, transporting me as surely as a story into these distant worlds.

As usual yesterday, Himself followed patiently as I led through the galleries of my first choice. Ultimately, though, I heard his wish to leave these and move to works of more sophisticated representation. I let go my fascination with 14th century German and Flemish works and crossed into the brighter light of Italy. There were some of my favourites of early Renaissance: BotticelliFra Lippo Lippi, Fra Angelico and – how wonderful to stumble on these! – several small panels by Giotto. These artists too have held me through their childlike delicacy. But yesterday I felt more strongly than before the pull of some of the later masters. It’s not that I had not seen the mastery of Leonardo or the beauty of Raphael, but I had resisted being drawn into their more substantial worlds. Something has shifted in me – I can’t now name it – and I began to let go some of my supercilious refusal to admit their tremendous talents.

This was even more true as we moved through the galleries into the Baroque period. Rubens can overwhelm, and the extent of the Rubens collection in the Alte Pinakothek overwhelms exponentially. On approach, I want to fight off his enormous canvases with their profusion of writhing human flesh, shimmering pink and white. Like the gemlike works of the early Flemish masters, there is much detail to be taken in, but it is on such a monumental scale! The bodies are so dimensional, thrusting dynamically off the surface of the canvas, that one feels the need to shield one’s integrity. However, exhausted with standing, I sat in the Rubens gallery and tried to see in these works what I could allow. They are masterful.

More pleasing to my sensibilities were Van Dyke’s paintings. I had admired his work before, but yesterday their beauty felt fresh and captivating. His portraits are searching, life like and exquisite; the drama in his Susana and the Elders startling and moving.

I moved between the large galleries where the Rubens, Van Dykes, Titians, Tintorettos and other monumental works hang and the smaller ‘cabinets’ where I found works on a more intimate scale, landscapes, genre paintings of peasant life, and still lifes. These too I have always loved, especially the Dutch still lifes of the 16th and 17th centuries. Like jewels, they shimmer with light, the artists displaying virtuosity as they lovingly capturing minute details.

But sitting in the gallery where the important works hang, the imposing monumental history paintings and portraits, I reflected on the relative importance of these vis a vis the still lifes. In the long tradition of European art, history painting – those depicting classical and religious subjects – and patrician portraiture outrank by orders of magnitude the importance given to the luscious artistry of still lifes. No matter how beautifully rendered, still lifes were of scant artistic importance because their subjects were nothing substantial. They depicted merely the ephemeral of daily existence, sometimes with a single message underlined: Life is transient.

Which thoughts reminded me of this blog and why I write. And of the fact that today is my 59th birthday.

These posts arose from letters written to keep alive friendships with those who are far away. Despite the need or drive I have to write, I have little or nothing of importance to say. I haven’t developed a narrative that would sustain short stories or a novel. Without even the mastery of the Dutch still-life painters, I can only try to capture the poignancy or wonder or adventure or, perhaps, the beauty of life as I experience it. From whence comes the drive to write about it, I’m not sure. Like  Dürer, Van Dyke, Rembrandt, and the many, many other artists who left behind self portraits, perhaps I have the passion to be seen for who I am or who I think I am.

Turning 59 is possibly more traumatic than turning 60, which at least offers the distraction of one of those milestone celebrations. Reaching the end of a decade of life seems like closing the book on something rather than the beginning of a new decade. The day I turned 49, I turned the fear inward and drank myself stupid by 4:30 pm. This year, I’m spending the day writing this post.

I have little to show for 59 years: no children, no published work, no memorable achievement of any sort. Nor do I have many years left to make any mark. Most likely, like the vast multitude of those who came before and who will come after, I’ll disappear into indistinguishable oblivion, my existence a mere ripple in time’s ether. In the face of that truth, however, I can’t help but believe it continues to be important to keep trying to capture in words, no matter how ineffectual, how it feels to be alive. To give up would be for me the worst kind of betrayal.

Friday, May 7, 2010

May Day, cont.

It’s unsettling how much living in another country disrupts one’s sense of competency. More than not speaking the language challenges one’s sense of being a responsible and intelligent adult. There’s not knowing the holidays, for instance. May Day, when all the shops close, sneaked up on us and caught us unaware. Other local customs and courtesies can catch you off guard, too, as we found out on May Day.

 In the years I lived in Southern California – over 30 years – probably not a week – not a day – went by without me complaining of noise. In the mid-1980s we lived in a crowded ‘transitional’ neighbourhood of apartments in Los Angeles’ Wilshire District. We were surrounded car alarms that malfunctioned and wailed unattended for hours. Bass thuds from powerful mobile woofers shook the air. An alarm peep-peep-peep-peeped every morning as our neighbour reversed out of his driveway. And rather than going to the door, teenagers sat in their cars and honked to announce their arrival.

Moving to the bedroom community of Thousand Oaks brought relief from the worst of the car alarms and honking. But suburban life means weekends filled with the roar of gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Its less travelled streets serve as testing grounds for motorcycles, high-volume ‘pocket rockets’, and shrill radio-controlled mini-cars. Motor boats engines, back from a weekend on the lake, must be cleared by running at full power in your neighbour’s driveway. Patios are equipped with stereos capable of broadcasting into backyards several lots away.

And, of course, there are well-amplified garage bands channelling adolescent angst through metallic discordance.

‘At least they’re not using drugs,’ said the homeowner, unsympathetic to my plea for peace.

‘At least that would keep them quiet,’ was my unspoken retort.

Well my husband recalls my temper rising under the stress of neighbourhood noise. I seethed, I simmered, I ranted. And, at last, I escaped to the countryside of Ireland.

Of course the Irish countryside has its own noises. At harvest time, combines rumble in fields from before dawn to well past dark, working against the threat of rain to bring in the corn. Year round, tractors pass along the roads, pulling tanks of slurry or trailers stacked with baled straw or bins full of grain. The school bus driver honks as he speeds round the blind bend morning and evening. And, of course, there are boy racers, fuelled by testosterone and petrol, wherever you go. Still, the sounds of the country, apart from the drone of farm machinery, tend to be the cacophony of crows, the rising song of the blackbirds, the lowing of cattle and bawling of sheep drifting across the fields.

Here on Katzenstrasse, lawns are mown and tree limbs are cut by chain saws, but bird song is more prevalent than the noise of fuel-powered engines. I  hadn’t thought much of it at all other than enjoying the peacefulness of a neighbourhood away from most urban noise.

There is a large garden in the back of the house that contains our flat. It turns out that maintaining the garden – mowing the lawn – is our responsibility. On Saturday, May Day, Himself at last attacked the lawn, which had with the spring warmth and rains grown several inches tall. He powered up the two-stroke engine of the new strimmer and, wearing eye and ear protection, spent several hours whacking the grass, dandelions and lovely purple flowers that also grew in profusion.

From the window on the first floor, I watched him work. There were neighbours in the house behind us watching too as they washed their car and shook dust from a rug. We haven’t met, and they made no effort to greet us, but I assumed their watchfulness stemmed from relief at seeing the jungle behind our house tamed.

Surrounded by overgrown shrubs and trees, the lawn is large. It is irregularly shaped and cut at intervals by jagged corners. There are trees growing in it as well and overhanging vines to be worked around. His progress was slow. All afternoon the engine throbbed as he whacked away the tall grass, foot by foot.

We had planned to get together with our neighbours later in the afternoon, and when the time came to join them, he hadn’t quite finished. Recognising that, in this culture, it would rude to make so much noise on Sunday, he had wanted to complete it on this Saturday afternoon. However we were waiting for him, so he put away the strimmer, planning to complete the job after work during the week, and joined us.

We sat in the front garden of the house across the street, two Austrian couples and ourselves, getting to know one another over coffee and cake. I asked about May Day. Because Salzburg, in particular, has a centuries-old Catholic tradition, I wondered whether May Day was celebrated as a Marian holiday, as it is by some Catholics in Ireland, or as its more recent incarnation as Labour Day. They were surprised to hear me ask about its Catholic associations. It is Labour Day here, as it is in many European countries. Himself remarked on the church’s history of appropriating and Christianising pagan celebrations. As it turns out, some of the ancient traditions of the pagan May celebration continue. The eight-year-old daughter of one of the couples was attending a local May Pole celebration with friends. She returned full of excitement over the children trying to climb the pole to retrieve the pretzels and sausages cached at the top as prizes.

By then, the sky, which had been sunny, had clouded over and another storm begun. We had moved inside where we visited a little while longer. Then we said goodbye and dashed across the street to avoid the rain.

Inside, Himself told me what I had missed when I had briefly gone home to get a bottle of wine. The two German-speaking couples had remarked on how another neighbour, a man from up the street, had stopped by earlier in the day. He was complaining about the noise of the strimmer. How long would it go on? Didn’t we realise, he had said to them, that it is illegal to make that kind of noise on a public holiday?

I thought of the neighbours behind us, watching, unsmiling, as Himself had worked. Oh the irony! After years of my railing over noise on weekends and holidays in California, we have at last come to live in a community where respecting others’ need for peace is not only considered a courtesy, it is codified. And now, at the first opportunity, we had violated both custom and law.

We did remark, though, on the civility of our neighbours. They had communicated this indirectly, anecdotally, as if commenting on the temperament of the complaining neighbour. Without calling attention to our lapse or embarrassing us, they had slipped it into the conversation almost as though by chance. We now know. 

And we find ourselves living in a civilised country.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Notebook Entry 2008

Co Tipperary
Sunday 5 May

After a grey, cool and changeable day on Saturday, yesterday was sunny, brilliant with colour and light, spring bursting forth from the vivid grasses and fresh young green in the budding trees. We had left the car in town overnight to take a taxi home from the pub – it’s what one must plan to do any more with the vigilance on drink driving – and so Himself dropped me in town to bring the car home. Driving home, I had both windows open, warm air caressing my face, blowing my hair against my cheek, light blinding as it glanced off black tiled-roofs, broad expanses of green fields stretching into the distance and from the upturned undersides of leaves. For the first time, I was out in a light-weight cotton knit top without wearing the thermal chemise I’ve worn since last fall.

At home I opened windows, letting in fresh warm air. I should say though that this warmth is relative – it was at most 16 or 17C – just 61 or 62F. In California, said Himself, I’d have been lighting the fire.

While we were roasting the chicken for Sunday dinner, I walked out the back and around the side of the house to toss out something – ‘into the ditch’ with the food scraps for the crows or other foragers – and suddenly there was a great flurry and swift beating of the air as a cock pheasant rose from the unruly tall grass and bore himself away at eye level, rich russet feathers ornamented with a flash of brilliant vermillion and intense teal blue, long tail feathers drawn out behind him, a visual coda.

After dinner I sat next to the open window in the dining room. The sun poured in over my shoulder, warming me as I sipped at the last of the white wine and reading sporadically. A blackbird sat in the budding mountain ash, his sweet clear rising notes as moving as the song of a concert soprano. Later, we took Sally the Border Collie for a walk up the road to explore the property over the road from us, ‘Ahern’s,’ as we all call it, though there are no Aherns there now. In fact, it is now unoccupied, which is what gave us the impetus to trespass into property that Himself hasn’t entered since childhood and I had never entered.

On old maps, it is marked as Garryroan house, Garryroan being the townland in which we live, our Irish address. (A townland is the smallest administrative district, a geographical segment that could be acres or miles. They are unmarked by physical boundaries: You just have to know where they are.) It must once have been a house or holding of some stature. We removed the tape barrier across the entrance, the barrier running between the wires of an electric fence, crossed over the cattle grid and started down the long tree-lined avenue toward the house.

Enormous stately beeches were just greening on the right; tall sycamores leafing out on the left. Beyond the hedges at either side, cattle grazed in the fields. The house sits in a slight  depression, so until we got about halfway along the avenue, I could only see the long ridge of its roof. At several  hundred metres long, the avenue is impressive. By the time the house was in sight, we moved to the right to say hello to three horses in a field to the side of the property, a mare and a half-grown foal and one other. The foal and mare stared at us intently, the foal coming close enough that I could just barely reach her to scratch her nose. The other horse was less curious; he angled his neck down and under the electric fence to tear at the fresh green ferns growing there before moving away. The mare and foal watched us, though, twisting their rubbery lips into funny faces at times. Sally crouched at the edge of the fence, watching them intently.

The house is an impressive but plain building, a long flat two-story plastered façade, roofed in old slates. To one side there is an extension, slightly lower and roofed in new tiles, with the same plain façade. It’s the setting and the relative size that makes it impressive. It’s not a large house – long but only one room deep for the most part –  but it’s larger for its time than the farm houses in the vicinity. At the back, part of it has been extended, adding depth to accommodate the kitchen and offices, I suppose. There are exposed stones though the plaster and holes, and the yard behind it is filled with rubble and detritus of construction. A modern block of stables extends from the back at right angles. Across the yard and parallel with the house is the two-story stone barn, also now falling apart but filled with old farming material and such. Beside that is the tall wide open-roofed cylinder, thick ropes of ivy stems growing up the old stone walls, a dove cote Himself has been told.

In front, the windows of the lower story of the main building are closed inside with old-fashioned wooden shutters. One window in the extension was uncovered. Through it we could see into the bare room and back window though which we had peered. The next window over is covered by a pink-and-maroon flowered curtain. In the deep sill, though, is a single dusty, down-trodden boot, faded brown laces snaking like a dispirited worm along the pink painted embrasure. It looked like a surreal display in a shop window.

We poked around the cluttered yard in back. There was a rusted decrepit bicycle, an expensive model with narrow racing tires. It had probably been left in a shed, we surmised. The remains of a metal wheel barrow were flattened as if crushed by a steam roller. Nearby, on the edge of a field, there was a shiny red, brand-new fertiliser spreader.

We stood at the edge of the pasture behind the old barn watching the cattle in the field. A few watched us too – cattle are very curious and attentive to human watchers. A large black bull, though, intently sniffed the russet backside of a heifer, oblivious of our presence. I waited, hoping for some excitement, but it was left to my imagination.

Overhead, swallows swooped and soared, twitting through their balletic flight. They fill one with joy.

Salzburg, 6 May 2010
It's a rainy grey day, too wet and chill to bicycle, far from that warm spring Tipperary day. But last evening, cycling home along the river, I saw swallows dancing high above in the late golden light. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bird Song

Himself has been considering cycling to work, a fair distance from our flat on the northwest of Salzburg. So yesterday, a clear day after a stormy night, we decided to bike the route to check it out.

We cycled the now-familiar path along the River Salzach, reaching the Altstadt in about 20 minutes. As we rounded the final bends before reaching the city’s historic core, I looked up to see the Hohensalzburg rising on the Festung, from which it dominates the city. Clustered forest-like around its base were centuries-old domes and steeples. Beyond it stood the green-covered Alps, and I thought what a storybook picture it looked. Salzburg seemed to me in the moment a gem, a wonderful place to live.

We continued southward along the river, a route less familiar but still one I have travelled to reach my yoga class. We were cycling now past moderately sized buildings – municipal and private offices, university buildings and apartment houses – that line the quay south of the Mozartsteg.

The bike path was still crowded, filled with skaters, walkers and cyclists on this pleasant Sunday afternoon. In fact, I found myself manoeuvring carefully to overtake slower cyclists while avoiding oncoming ones. Along the path, people paused in walking their dogs to talk. A man leaned into a car, talking to the driver as he stopped in the street. Two middle-aged nuns stood talking to a man and a woman as they peered into the window of a bright red van. ‘Super!’ said one nun just as I passed her.

As I wondered what had excited her enthusiasm, I thought, ‘She’s just another woman, not much older than me. Why shouldn’t she be pleased by ordinary things on a beautiful spring day.’

About thirty-five minutes along we entered a wooded area, the river still to our left. By now I was getting tired, and neither of us was sure how much farther we needed to travel. We knew only that the campus of buildings was beyond where a tributary joins the Salzach. The trees in the wood we passed were green with the freshness of spring, the ground damp beneath then. As we rolled along I realised there was no litter, unlike in America or, even worse, in Ireland where rubbish is indiscriminately strewn along green lanes as well as  remote tracks. Is the corporation of Salzburg better at picking up rubbish, I wondered, or, more likely, is its population less apt to litter?

Another fifteen minutes along, we passed a beer garden or gasthaus on what seemed to be the shores of a small lake. People sat on the grass or at tables under the trees. Then the trail rose suddenly, and we were on top of a large dam crossing the river, water roiling dramatically in front of it and swelling more calmly beyond it. A few minutes along, we came at last to the convergence of waters, one river pouring into another.

By now, it was as though we had left the city behind us altogether The river here was wide and placid. Swans shone white on its surface. The water was pale, pale blue-green and nearly opaque, a smooth nearly unearthly colour after the clear bog brown of the rivers we knew in Ireland. Rising steeply just beyond, jagged, tree-covered Alps framed the scene.

We passed families playing on the sandy shore and fishermen stretched beside their poles. A pair of women walked behind shaggy Yorkies, one cream and one caramel. A woman in jeans rested her head on a man’s shoulder as they walked along, hands held tightly between them. Along the shore, a small clear stream revealed pale sand and brown pebbled in its shallow depths before it flowed into the opaque pale turquoise river.

We found at length what we had come for and turned to return to the city. Now late in the afternoon, grey clouds, warning of another storm, massed overhead. In the wood to our left, pale green of new beech leaves and broader leaves of white-flowered horse chestnuts filtered the light overhead. It was, briefly, so like Ireland, where the intensity of green seems at times to tint the very air. For the moment, the path was deserted; no cyclist or jogger or skater or dog walker passed us. Other than the murmur of the river and the whirl of my wheels, it was very still. Then I heard from the wood, very distinctly, what it took a moment to comprehend.

Coo-Coo. Coo-Coo. Coo-Coo.

Ahead, Himself wheeled around and raised his hand, pointing to the wood. Stopping and straddling my bike, I nodded. Yes, yes, I heard, I heard.

Coo-Coo. Coo-Coo. Coo-Coo.

Though I  had never before heard the cuckoo's call, there was no mistaking it, two clear notes repeated again and again. It was sweeter than I had imagined, soft but clear and sustained, like chimes, reverberating through the dense green wood.

Coo-Coo. Coo-Coo. Coo-Coo.

Then the notes stopped, and we were freed to continue, northward with the Salzach, toward home.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day

Today is Saturday, the day we do our main grocery shopping for the week. It is also May Day, an Austrian holiday. We learned only late yesterday afternoon that all shops, all grocery markets, hardware stores, laundries – everything – are closed today. At least, so we were told.

So to prevent a grocery crisis, Himself left work early enough to pick me up to do the shopping. We were even able to squeeze in a trip to the new Bauhaus, the enormous DIY centre covering several acres, so it seemed, in the style of those in the U.S. You know you’re a resident of a place when your pressing needs include a strimmer for the garden.

By the time we brought the groceries up the stairs, it was late and we were hungry, so we thought we’d see if the nearby gasthaus serves food. Just a ten-minute walk from our flat, it’s a small place, a timber-framed building of about the size of a two-room house, surrounded by the fields that stretch between us and the local shopping district. Passing on my bike on sunny afternoons, I’ve often noticed people drinking beer under wide umbrellas at its outdoor tables.

It was nearly nine, and Himself was doubtful, but when we approached, we could see a group of about eight men, shadowy in the dim light, eating at one of the tables. Chances were that we could get a meal.

‘Drinnen?’, the proprietor asked. No, we said. We would prefer to sit outside in the dusk, though the grey clouds overhead were turning darker.

He put a table cloth on the small table and, before he brought us our beers, put a candle-illuminated lamp on it. Then he recited the short menu. The conversation between my husband and him had been entirely in German, however basic, but at this point Himself said, in German, ‘I don’t understand.’

‘What don’t you understand?’ the proprietor asked, also in German. Then he translated, a little halting but certainly clearly, the last item he had recited. A beef roulade with spaetzl. That would do just fine.

And it was delicious. We had found, perhaps, what I hoped we would, a place within walking distance with decent food where we could go of an evening or on a hot afternoon for a beer or two.

After serving us, Wolfgang, as it turns out the proprietor is called, unfurled and raised the umbrella next to our table. Was it going to rain, my husband asked. Wolfgang shrugged and commented that in any case, the clouds were getting blacker.

Next to us a solitary man sipped at his beer and smoked. Wolfgang stood by the man’s table and, with a gesture and word of thanks, took a cigarette from the pack that lay there. He stared off into the sky as he smoked, then went to check on the group around the large table. Occasionally, a car passed on the dark road, its approach signalled by the rumble of the narrow wooden bridge over the stream that winds through the field. We sat in the peace of the evening, pleased with ourselves.

‘Look,’ said my husband. In the darkness away to the west, over Germany, the horizon briefly paled. The sky darkened again, then came another faint light that quickly faded.

‘Let’s see how long before we hear the thunder.’

Something rumbled in the darkness, but it was only a car crossing the bridge. Soon, though, the sky brightened again, then again, and again. The flashes were brighter and coming more frequently. A woman who had joined the man at the table next to us got up to roll her bicycle into the shelter of the gasthaus. Wolfgang paused by our table. ‘Donner und blitzen?’ my husband asked him. Wolfgang couldn’t be sure, but it looked like it. We paid our bill, shook hands with Wolfgang and said good night.

Our brief drive was in the direction of the approaching storm. My husband drove slowly, pausing occasionally as lightening lit the horizon and silhouetted the trees surrounding the lake beyond our flat. Rapidly, the flares grew more brilliant. At home we opened the door from the bedroom and stepped onto the flat roof of the garage, giving us a view into the storm. Now we heard the crash of thunder as the storm moved ever closer. In the bursts of bright light we could see jagged bolts cutting the sky. With each flash, the clamour of the ducks on the lake rose.

Keeping in under the deep eaves, mindful of the danger of being struck, we stood transfixed by the drama. Illuminating the sky nearly continuously, the storm moved toward us. Rain splatted, slanting silver in against the lit sky. We settled into deck chairs, sheltered and content, remembering other storms. Himself recalled seeing a storm rolling over the landscape in Germany, where he lived many years ago. Similarly, I have the vivid recollection of a storm moving across the Salt Lake Valley as I watched from the University of Utah high on the east bench of the Wasatch Mountains. Himself remarked that storms don’t seem to move so dramatically over the Irish countryside. I tried and failed to recall seeing from our house in Southern California the similar onward march of a lightening storm.

At last, the storm moved past us, as it did lighting the sky behind the pilgrimage church of Maria Plain, silhouetting its twin towers high on a hill to our east. Then it began to fade in the distance. Other than the steady beat of rain as it fell, illuminated by the streetlamp across the way, there was little left to see from the roof.

Inside, I sat in the living room, trying to read my book on the history of Europe. But the intensity of the rain drumming in the darkness was hypnotic, pulling my attention from the text. I turned off the light and sat in the dark, half listening, half dreaming, until I was lulled into sleep.