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.

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