Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Awkward, continued

It was a late afternoon in autumn, about six weeks after we had arrived in Ireland to live. After wandering along the River Suir under drooping amber chestnut leaves, I was sitting alone at a small table in front of the Lazy Bean café, staring across at the Charteris memorial in the centre of Cahir square.

The transition to life in Ireland had been harder than I had expected. Despite having my husband’s family around us – my mother-in-law as close as next door – I felt isolated, cut off. Our shipment of  belongings was still somewhere on the ocean,  so we had little in the house and no cosy chair or sofa on which to relax. Eircom, the phone company, had promised a landline, but weeks passed with no action. Mobile phone coverage was spotty and nearly non-existent in the house. Which meant, of course, we had no internet – no mobile connection, no DSL, no dial-up – no way to stay connected to the world at large.

Our new house, surrounded by hedges and green fields, was lovely, and I was happy to be there. But still, I was finding it hard to settle. I missed my friends. I missed the long telephone conversations and spontaneous email exchanges, the lunches out and shared shopping trips, the special bond with my young friend’s daughters.

As September became October, and the days grew slowly but perceptibly shorter, I took to driving the five kilometres to Cahir, the nearest town, in the late afternoons to have a cappuccino at the sidewalk café, hoping to find conversation and incipient friendship.

This afternoon, though, foreboded rain, and the square was abnormally quiet. So the other tables were empty when the three women arrived and sat down near me. They were dressed in light tan waterproof jackets, beige hiking trousers and thick-soled shoes. And, not unusually for tourists in Cahir, they spoke with American accents.

I overheard them discuss their next stop, now that they had seen Cahir’s 11th century castle, the town’s big draw. Should they go to Cashel? What about a tramp along the river? Or would they continue further along towards Dublin? They looked at the guide book and considered the possibilities.

The irony of this tale lies in my normal reluctance to engage with American tourists. I usually observe them quietly, deliberately keeping my distance. I suffer, badly, from what might be called the ex-patriot disease, a kind of smug arrogance felt toward one’s former fellow countrymen and -women. Maybe it’s evidence of a childish insecurity. Maybe it’s a natural response to the vulnerability one has felt as a tourist, conscious of the poorly disguised contempt of some locals, the uneasy notion, hard to push aside, that one is being sneered at by supercilious merchants, waiters and hoteliers.

Or maybe it’s my character flaw alone, not generalised among other ex-pats. (Though I did meet, on St Patrick’s night here in Salzburg, another American near the ladies loo in an Irish pub. She was about 22 or 3, a student, who, in our brief conversation as we stood in the queue outside the locked door, was at pains to insist: ‘I’m not a tourist, you know. I live here.’)

So, for better or worse, I tend not to greet other Americans in restaurants or on buses. I don’t engage with them when I bump into them on the crowded streets of Salzburg or in the shops of Cahir. I hear their accents, I spot the matching windbreakers and new white shoes, and I lower my voice and turn away.

But that dull afternoon, the bright Georgian facades lining the square did not touch my heart as they usually did. The charm of the Charteris memorial faded, and the pewter sky lowered oppressively. I studied the women, who seemed interested in some of the same things that attracted me to South Tipperary. I told myself that they might welcome my experience of my new home, experience gained through study and dogged sightseeing during 20 years visiting the area.

I turned toward them as they huddled over their map and caught the eye of one. In her mid to late thirties, she had short curly hear and a square face with an expression of assurance.

I spoke.

‘Cashel is definitely worth a visit. The Rock is one of my favourite places in Ireland. It's magnificent.’

She stared at me, not speaking at first. Her companions, also about her age, looked at me and then back at her.

‘Ah.' She squeezed it out. 'Thanks.’ 

The three women nodded at me. Then they leaned in over their coffees, talking softly. After a few minutes, they stood and walked away toward the river without looking in my direction.

Undoubtedly, they didn’t see a resident but another tourist, middle-aged and on her own, likely to try to insert herself into their plans. A nuisance.

I think of the sixty-ish woman encountered at breakfast in a hotel in Clare one morning. Overhearing the American accents of myself and my companion, a well-travelled professor making a brief stop to see me in Ireland, the stranger had tried to join our conversation. The woman, on her own at the table next to ours, leaned toward us and commented on the breakfast. She asked what we thought of Ireland, told us about her job in America, and wondered about our flight times. Then she broached the idea of sharing a taxi to the airport.

Focussed on our own conversation and aware that our time together was short, we found this an intrusion, and, after a few short answers, ignored her completely. I felt a stab of sympathy as she absorbed this humiliation, finished her breakfast and left without a word. But I was greedy for private conversation with my friend, whose demanding schedule makes time very precious and our meetings infrequent. It was a case of letting our own needs prevail in the moment.

So I understood the women’s need to establish, as they say, a clear boundary. But, oh, the sting. Oh, the irony.

Oh, the loneliness.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


If I thought I would escape the wet summers of Ireland by moving to Salzburg, I was more mistaken than can be imagined. Himself points out that the rains don’t bring winds as they frequently do in Ireland. At least the rain falls straight down. But it’s wet. And relentless.

So wet that on some Wednesday nights, I have to take the bus to my yoga class. When I do, a very pleasant 30-minute bicycle ride to the other side of the city becomes a 30-minute bus ride, with perhaps 20 minutes in addition waiting for connecting buses. Buses in Salzburg run efficiently, but they are less frequent by the time my class is over.

Which is how, on a recent evening, I came to be standing in a crowd at the bus Halt on the Alpenstrasse near Akademiestrasse. It had been raining heavily earlier when I walked to the bus stop, so I was wearing an old black rain coat, much too long and bulky for a late spring evening. I stood, head to foot in black, wearing a flimsy orange nylon backpack lumpy with a yoga block and blanket, trying to wedge myself in under the shelter and out of the rain.

Waiting, I rang Himself, home from work by now, to ask whether he’d meet me at the bus stop near home to save me the six-minute walk from there. After saying goodbye, I put away my mobile and looked around self-consciously, aware I must have been overhead speaking in English.

I looked up to see three young women, dressed casually, in short jackets and jeans and carrying book bags, standing near me, glancing first in my direction and then at each other. I felt the rush of embarrassment I always do when reminded how much at a disadvantage I am. They most likely understood my conversation, but I am still at sea with German.

We stood in awkward silence, trying not to jostle one another in the crowded shelter. I rested slightly on my umbrella and tucked my handbag under my arm, keeping my eyes from focussing on any particular face. It’s elevator behaviour, that delicate adjustment of personal boundaries in limited space. And the social convention in Austria is to keep oneself to oneself rather than engaging in small talk with strangers.

The girls started talking quietly to one another and I realised, suddenly, they were complaining about the rain. In English.

One said something about summers in Iceland, her home. Another remarked on her home in Finland. The third girl, from Spain, missed the heat and dry weather.

Realising they must be students at the nearby university, I looked from face to face. Impulsively, looking in the direction of the girl from Iceland, I said, ‘I come from Ireland, and it rains like this all the time.’

For an instance, she held my glance. Then she dropped her eyes. One of the others looked at her, then away. No one spoke.

I hugged my handbag closer to me, straightened my shoulders and stared into the street. We all leaned out slightly to study the thin but steady stream of passing traffic. Looking south along the Alpenstrasse, we could see approaching cars and vans, but no bus.

‘Where do you come from in Spain?’ I spoke almost without thinking, in the American fashion.

‘Near Madrid.’

‘Oh. I have a nephew who married a woman from Spain.’ And I named the town, mispronouncing it miserably, as I always do.

She murmured something indistinguishable, then . . . nothing.

You American readers will find my remark perfectly reasonable, even normal.

You European readers will find it, well, very American.

Which is how it seemed to me.

My non sequitur hung there, unanswered, as I studied the red-and-black check on her tan jacket rather than looking at her face. A few more seconds passed in silence, then I turned my body just slightly away – a few degrees, barely perceptible – and slipped a little deeper into the corner.

I imagined myself through their eyes. A stranger, middle aged – not even their own generation – I had insinuated myself into their conversation. With uninvited information of no interest to anyone, I had tried to establish common ground where there is none. To what purpose?

It’s common practice in the States, and among travellers it’s a way to stave off loneliness. But in their silence, I felt ridiculous. Things are done differently here, and it is as hard to adapt to new cultural mores as it is to learn German.

Keeping my back straight, I remained apart from them to signal my comprehension. Unwelcome, I had intruded. And how odd I must have seemed to have claimed I was from Ireland with my obvious American accent.

We waited. They began again to talk among themselves until the bus arrived. Boarding, I studiously ignored them in the crush. The bus was packed so tightly that flesh pressed against flesh each time it shuddered to a stop. Pushing my way off, I looked up to see my connection waiting and, just in front of me, the red-and-black check of the Spanish girl’s jacket. Boarding through the back door, I kept my eyes ahead and moved quickly to a seat just behind the driver. She should not fear I would repeat my solecism.

Staring out the window at as the bus pulled away from the kerb a few stops on, I saw the distinctive jacket again as she went into a small block of apartments. The bus was now nearly empty. I sat back in my seat, looked out at the wet dark streets, and thought of Himself and home.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Sunday we drove to Hallstatt, about an hour from Salzburg, where salt has been mined since the Celts settled the region, before the Romans ruled. There is a museum there we understand is very good in reconstructing this history, as well as a tour into the mines. And perhaps next time we go, we’ll visit them. As it was, this was more of a scouting visit, to get a sense of the place and see if we’d like to return for a longer visit.

Which we would. Hallstatt is simply stunning, a fairy-tale beautiful, a picture-postcard Alpine village nestled – I use the word self-consciously, aware of sounding like ad copy for a travel bureau – in a deep valley right on the shore of a large lake, the Hallstätter See.

The road into the village follows the shore and then passes through a single-lane tunnel about a kilometre long. This brings you immediately into the village, but we drove on until we found a small car park near a picnic area.

Standing on the grassy shore, we looked over the lake under grey clouds. The water was very clear and light coloured; we could see the sand and stones in the shallows. Further out, the silver-blue surface mirrored the clouds, and alternating currents reflected light and shade. Across its expanse we could see another shore with a small cluster of buildings. Around us, though, the mountains rose abruptly, very steep, and dense with trees, deep green and brilliant against the grey sky. Gauze-like wisps of clouds hung just overhead, like sheer silk scarves snagged on the mountainsides.

It seemed extraordinarily peaceful. A family group was picnicking just behind us on the slope: they sat around a table while a pair of men attended a portable grill and long-legged teenagers, laughing and calling, played something like tag or keep-away. High on one of the mountains facing us the cars of a funicular railway ascended and descended toward a building high above. They looked like toys, silent and half hidden in the trees.

Back in the village, we walked along a narrow street past a small dock from which a boat tour of the lake departs, but it was late in the day by then, and the last boat had sailed. From the dock, you can see the steeple of a church on the opposite shore, looking quite small. (I assume this is the notorious church containing the ossuary of exhumed bones, a site I don’t feel I need to visit.)

There were a good number of people milling about, some tourists from coaches parked nearby, some strolling couples like us, and some families with children on bikes. We stopped at the rail on one side of the street to watch the lake lap its shore, a few swans and ducks swimming close in, the mountains seeming to plunge directly into its depths. The other side of the street is lined with traditional houses, their ground level rooms given over to souvenir shops selling salt from the mines and soaps, glassware and figurines, overall tending to the kitsch end of the scale. From the upper floors, which are given over to apartments and pensions, voices drifted out to the street.

The houses are of timber weathered to the colour of gingerbread and molasses. Wide carved balconies project from the upstairs stories; deep eaves project even further. Flowers of vivid blues and brilliant reds sprawl up the sides of  walls and burst from flower boxes. Wind chimes, glass balls and metal ornaments dangle from balconies. Stucco is painted intense colours – rust, sienna or pink – and decorated with traditional carved wooded motifs, painted figures and German Gothic script.

After passing the museum, the street eventually opens into a platz, at the bottom of which is the church. Near it is a wide fountain around a column topped with a ecstatic figure in the Baroque manner. The platz is wide, and the surrounding houses are bright with colourful windows and balconies hung with vines. From an open window on an upper floor, a woman in tracht – traditional Austrian dress – leaned out to watch the activity below. It’s a welcoming place, filled with benches and open-air cafes, and I imagined enjoying community life there on a warm day.

Above the platz, the houses rise one by one, a stair-steeping series of steep angled roofs pressed into the flank of the mountain. Although similar in style, each expresses its own individuality in carved surfaces and painted windows and doors. Sunday, the overcast sky deepened the saturation of the colours and enriched the many textures of wood, stone, vines and trees, overwhelming the senses with an almost dream-like intensity.

Before leaving, we took a last look out across the shining lake at the ranks of tree-covered mountain peaks receding into the distance, illuminated by the late afternoon light breaking through the mists. Then we began our drive over another mountain toward home, past rolling green valleys, dense forests, roiling streams and rivers, and wide clear lakes. It is indeed very beautiful here; I am drawn deeper into the magic of the Alps.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Views of Untersberg, an Alpine peak that resonates in the local consciousness, fill the windows of the building where my husband works. His office associates recount tales of climbing it or skiing from its summit. Even non-athletes like Himself and I can discover its magic by taking the cable car to the top, which we did on Sunday, a warm and cloudless day.

The first part of the nine-minute ride to the top glides along the craggy rock face of the mountain. From the car we looked down on a small cluster of houses set in green pastures, looking idyllic on this bright day. As we climbed higher, we faced the sheer wall of rock from which sprang conifers with their undergrowth. I didn’t let my mind wander to the slender cables supporting the car, which rocked gently as its wheels passed over the first pylon, near the slope’s crest. A murmur of ‘Ahs’ filled the car as we waited for the swaying to subside.

Suddenly, passing the crest, the car bobbed and, with one or two jerks, dipped. ‘Ahs’ turned to gasps. Below our fragile car, the world had fallen away. We dangled over a deep Alpine valley, far beneath our feet. Between us and that distant valley floor – nothing. There was nothing in front of us save the twitching black cables suspended from distant tracks. Our anchor to security dissolved in the pale air.

To this point, I had kept my anxiety at bay by focussing on the solidity of the mountain immediately facing us. Now I saw away in the distance another peak, our destination, the station on its ridge not more than a speck. I tightened my grip on the railing, willing myself to stay calm. What am I doing here? I should never have come.

The station came into view at last, black cables swooping towards us as we inched, agonisingly, excruciatingly, terrifyingly, toward it. We were metres away, less than a metre, inches away – and the car stopped. We’re almost there! Please, just a few inches more! I want to get off, now!

Even as we finally climbed the few steps and came out into the station I was shaky, reluctant. Having arrived, we would not turn around, but the terror of what lay in front of us was nearly crippling. I delayed, looking at a wall-mounted board illustrating Untersberg’s flora and fauna. Behind me, just feet away, large windows opened onto the alarming panorama awaiting me.

Himself spotted a door and stepped out onto a platform at the side of the structure. I followed, reluctant, keeping my hand on the inner wall, as far from the railing as possible.

We stood at an altitude of 1,776 metres. I looked back in the direction we had come, nearly two and a half kilometres away. Out there, over the edge, stretching to infinity, lay a landscape of miniature fields, plains, rocks, trees, rivers and lakes, and faint clusters of pastel  buildings. It was beautiful, but my fascination with the view was overwhelmed by primal terror, the suffocating, irrational sense – too visceral to be deemed belief – that even by looking into the distance I would be sucked into the void. Holding the wall, I went back into the station while a boy of about nine, bright in an orange tee-shirt, posed for pictures on the platform.

Taking the next cable car down was unthinkable. I would have to find a way to carry on, like the others around us. Beyond the station, a path zigzagged down the side of the mountain toward a timber building. I looked down then quickly looked away. Path and building seemed utterly exposed. One slip of the foot and one would be hurtled away.  I thought of how we had hiked into the Grand Canyon, down trails that faced the vivid depths. It was walking down the exposed face that made me tremble; walking up, back toward the canyon rim, was bearable.

There was another path leading up, past a slope beyond which I couldn’t see. Away across the distance of several hundred metres, a rounded summit was silhouetted against the blue sky, a tall narrow cross on top it. Tiny figures seemed to move along its ridge. I looked away. Don’t make me climb up there.

Instead we took an almost gentle walk along a wide rising footpath. I stayed as close as possible to the landward side, grasping any rail or wall or rock I passed. Passing the terrace of a timber-built gasthaus crowded with people eating and drinking beer in the sun, we reached a resting place where the view off into the distance was protected by grass-covered boulders. Beyond us, vertical shafts of rock buttressed the wall of mountain, relieving the sense that nothing lay between me and the abyss. Tiny alpine flowers of yellow clustered in the grass. Vivid, deep-blue gentians fascinated me, calling to mind a D. H. Lawrence poem I’d read years ago and forgotten. Two women in their late sixties sat on a wood bench next to a man with an enormous stomach like a thick pad protecting him. Families with children clamoured up the gentle rise of hill behind them. It was clear that this expedition did not necessarily demand athleticism or mountaineering skill.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ Himself reassured me. ‘It’s a natural response. Just give it some time.'

It was time to eat, so we settled on the terrace of the Hochalm gasthaus, which first opened in1962, a year after the cable car began operating. Opposite us, a handsome woman with high cheek bones rested her head against the weathered timber boards of the house, eyes closed, sun soaking her deeply tanned face. Our own skin felt thin and tender, vulnerable to burning at this altitude. One of the men at our communal table shared his sunscreen. We ate, drank beer and gradually the binding fear loosened.

My husband went boldly to the edge of the path that wound along the mountain’s north-facing slope. I stood a little back, protected by a JCB parked on the path, grasping its side. Below the countryside spread itself before us as we tried to make out landmarks. The Festung – the 11th century fortress that dominates Salzburg from its hill by the river – looked as insubstantial as a matchbox. Through the blue haze, we could just barely make out the pilgrimage church Maria Plain that stands on another hill near our flat. We tried to follow the course of the river as it snaked through the landscape on its way north toward Germany. Following thin green lines of riverside trees, we located the confluence of the Salzach and the Saalach, a few minutes’ bicycle ride from our flat. A sudden roar of engines drew our attention to the large oval that marked the airport’s runway. A jet would be taking off, but it took seconds to locate it as it lifted, toy-like, over the landscape beneath it. And far off, across a wide expanse of plains and rolling hills, lay a large blue lake, the Weitsee, one section of the Chiemsee – the Bavarian Sea – in Germany.

Though the mountain seemed to fall away just beyond the path, my husband pointed out that the slope below it was gentle. Daring myself and trusting him, I inched a little closer. He was right; covered with low-growing dwarf pines, the slope rolled away gently. Even if I fell – unlikely – it wouldn’t spell disaster. I began to regain confidence in the solidity of the ground under me. The predictability of gravity could again be trusted.

At last we started along the trail, walking along a wide path thick with pebbles, then stopping to investigate the crusted snow that still lay in thick patches in protected spaces. We were moving, inevitably, so it seemed, in the direction of the high summit topped by the cross. Looking up, I could see it looming overhead, surrounded by nothing but blue sky dotted with white clouds. I pushed away the dread of standing there and followed my husband’s lead. As we moved on, I took it one view at a time, one bend, one sudden drop, one hairpin turn at a time. Where the trail ascended up steep timber-edged steps, I clutched the rail; where none was available, I grabbed at stones jutting out of the mountain wall. Mostly, while we climbed, I tried to avoid looking into the distance, grounding myself by focussing on the solidity of my immediate surroundings. Somewhere along the way, Himself received a text. It the mobile network alerting him to rates in Germany. We had crossed the border.

The picture taken of Himself and me on the summit – 1,853 metres – shows my arm twisted awkwardly behind me as I hold onto the side of the cross mounted there. But I had made it, and from there I admired the view in all directions. Off to the north, we could see mountains, still covered in snow, that we hadn’t seen from the valley. In another direction, the half-dome Berchtesgaden – site of the Eagle’s Nest – stood closest to us, some ten or 15 kilometres away. As to my fear, it had not so much disappeared as become manageable. All the same, when Himself climbed onto the level top of a small pedestal – about 18 inches square and half metre tall – the highest point on the summit – I refused to follow him. The sight of him standing on the raised stone support, no matter how stout, with the vast emptiness behind him, paralysed me.

I dreaded the return walk, when, rather than being able to face the mountain as I had on the ascent, I would have to face the vacancy in front of me. I focused on placing each foot carefully on the ground beneath me. As long as I didn’t look out, it would be okay. Still, I couldn’t help but see, amid the beauty, the sheer drops just beyond the trail.

‘Coward!’ I told myself. How could I be so frightened, when so many others climbed without apparent fear? Where was my courage?

Then I remembered a friend who, following severe abuse and abandonment in childhood, remained haunted by emotional trauma extreme enough to make all relationships problematic. For him, even simple interactions could be perilous, and he fought to maintain stability through iron-willed control.

He likened this effort to his weekly climbs up Salt Lake City’s granite peaks: ‘I work each day as if that day were a little life, doing my best, not trying to jump off the cliff, or gaze over the precipice, simply concentrating on each step as I do when I'm walking the edge of a mountain range, since I know that not concentrating on the single step will lead to falling off the side.’

It wasn’t cowardice to feel afraid. Courage is what made it possible to go to the summit and back. Avoiding what would unbalance me was simply sound judgment.

And it turns to be, quite literally, a question of balance. Acrophobia, the fear of heights – what’s called Höhenangst in German –  is thought to be triggered when the body’s signals that it is maintaining equilibrium are disrupted by the absence of the visual cues it normally relies on. Undoubtedly, this offers an evolutionary advantage, warning us of potential danger. It’s no wonder the response is so visceral.

Again, as he so often is, my husband was right. While I still grabbed rails or rocks or any handle available, I was able to walk, if not at the edge of the path, at least in its centre. By the time we boarded the cable car for the return trip, exhilaration and something like pride carried the day.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Luck on the Day

The bus was just about to pull away from the Bärenwirt stop when the driver made an announcement, auf Deutsch, of course.

‘He said he’s only going as far as Hanuschplatz.’ My husband, whose understanding of German is growing faster than my own, translated. ‘Something about an event today. I guess they have the streets closed.’

It was the Feast of Corpus Christi and, like all Austrian holidays, it was observed on its calendar date, a Thursday in this case. In Austria, you take your holidays when they fall, not on the closest Monday or Friday. We were on our way to the Salzburg museum. It was too cloudy and too wet to drive to Tirol or ride the cable car up the Untersberg, either of which we’d planned to do on our next free day.

Hanuschplatz would do fine. It was only one stop from Mozartsteg, the closest to the museum. A walk through the Altstadt is never uninteresting.

But as the bus turned up through a narrow passage toward the next stop, we saw coming towards us three open-topped vintage cars. Himself nudged me. ‘Remember the cars we saw yesterday? There must be something on.’

Did I ever mention that Himself has been in love with cars since he was old enough to sit up and, holding a saucepan lid in two pudgy paws, pretend to drive? That he could name – with accuracy – every car on Ireland’s roads by the time he was four? That he can recite the registration number of a car he owned over thirty years ago, when he was in his late teens?

When we got off the bus at the river’s edge, we could see the crowds lining the sidewalks along the street and over the Stadtbrücke about four hundred metres ahead. From the bus stop, the street rises slightly from the bus stop, so we were looking up toward the bridge and could see in the spaces between the standing figures the blur of cars whizzing past.

‘There are cars racing over there,’ he said, with the pretence of petulance, ‘and I can’t see them.’

‘Well, we’ll walk faster then,’ I said and lengthened my steps. We reached the bridge soon and nudged ourselves into an open space at corner of the bridge and sidewalk.

Fifties rock and roll blared from speakers as engines thundered. Over the music a pleasant voice announced the cars as they approached. I turned my  head to see each one as it emerged from behind a lamppost partially blocking my view. A bright-green Porsche 911. A BMW roadster. Several Ferraris. An MG roadster. They flashed by quickly in the narrow space between the lamp post and the woman in front of me who leaned out over the railing that contained us.

I tried to make out the German words: Neunzehnhundert dreiundsechzig. It was a lot of work, but, yes, I worked it out. In fact, I could see that most of the cars were Sixties vintage, with a few, perhaps, reaching back into the Fifties. I could make out the year here and there, occasionally the make. I didn’t understand the German pronunciation of Jaguar, but I did understand ‘E-Type’. A small black Austin passed, similar to the one my parents owned when I was about five. But – wait a minute – did he say fünfunddreißig? Did my eyes or my shaky grasp of German fail me? Or was it my also-shaky knowledge of vintage cars? (I discovered, on researching it, that it was a 1956 Austin A35, a few years newer than the one my parents owned.)

The cars continued their circuit, speeding across the bridge from the Neuestadt, turning left in front of us, then roaring away toward the bridge several hundred metres southward, where they turned left over the river, then left again and northward to re-cross the Stadtbrücke.

I at last spotted the announcer standing behind a barricade of stacked tyres just metres from us. A greying man in his forties, he wore a bright red polo shirt, and his face reflected the calm humour with which he announced the cars and their drivers. Listening, I struggled to make out distinct words, trying to follow at least the car makes and years. But though he spoke distinctly, individual words dissolved into a blur of sound that streamed over me, largely indecipherable.

Still the cars zoomed past, a parade of colour on the dull day. We heard the rumble of the engine and then, briefly, each car would stream into view before listing deeply on the sharp left turn and rocketing away. A cream-coloured 1955 Mercedes 300 SL Roadster. A pewter-coloured Aston-Martin. A 1966 Maserati Mistral. A fire-engine red 1969 Corvette.  A 1962 Sunbeam. Porsche 911s, Porsche 356s, Alfa Romeos, and Mini Coopers.

I let my focus wander from the cars to look around me. To our backs, the Salzach swept rapidly northward, its waters high with the previous day’s heavy rain, so high they came within a metre or two of the pedestrian and bike paths suspended under the bridge. On its opposite bank, pastel-coloured Belle Époque buildings rose against the green, tree-covered Kapuzinerberg. Nearer us, just above the course, people looked out of first and second floor curved windows of the Baroque-era buildings. Rocking side to side, a woman danced to the beat of Splish-Splash playing from the speakers below.

The beat of the music infected the woman next to me, too, as she turned and smiled, as if to invite me to share her excitement. Behind us, people of all ages jostled to find a spot to watch. A young couple angled a baby stroller in and peered over our shoulders. I envied the three men in cloth caps their height as they towered over me. In front of me, a boy of about 11 leaned over the railings and tugged on his mother’s sleeve. The music changed again, and the announcer intoned, in English and with deadpan irony, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr Elvis Presley.'

Ah yes. No wooden hearts here.

Across from us, on the opposite side of the bridge, I could see railings where only a few people stood. We slipped down some steps and, with the strains of Fun, Fun, Fun echoing off the walls of the subterranean passageway, crossed to that corner. From there, standing opposite the red-shirted announcer, instead of seeing brake lights as cars rounded the turn, we saw their grilles as the approach to it. They veered towards us, rachetting up the tension as they came close to clipping the kerb near where we stood.

By now the rally class had changed to a thrilling parade of race cars, many of them over 50 years old, and a large portion of them open. Low-slung boat-shaped Morgans, a 1931 and a 1926 Buggatti. A white 1969 Porsche that I thought the announcer said had been driven by Steve McQueen. A streamlined silver 1955 Mercedes and a bulky 1932 Chrysler Gold Seal. A 1969 Shelby Cobra, massive engine throbbing. The drivers in their leather jackets, helmets and goggles, smiled back at the applause and thumbs-ups from the exhilarated crowd. As they sped away down the narrow road, the faster of the cars swerved left and right as they tried to overtake those in front of them, with others approaching close behind.

It was, in fact, a rally, we learned later, part of the Gaisbergrennen race for historic cars sponsored by the Salzburg Rallye Club. But from our perspective, standing on the corner waving at the drivers as they passed, one after another, the atmosphere was festive, celebratory, rather than competitive. Our stumbling onto it on the way to the museum – a visit now  postponed – was happy chance, one of the pleasures of living in Salzburg.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


It rained for most of May, so we were particularly pleased that the Monday of the Pfingsten – Pentecost – holiday was sunny and warm. After a lazy morning, we decided about midday we packed a lunch of cold cuts and took our bikes out for a ride along the river.

We followed the River Salzach along its northward course away from the city. The bright holiday afternoon had brought many Salzburgers out. Spandex-suited cyclists on light racing bikes competed with middle-aged women walking with determination. Young couples pushed strollers. Light flashed bright, shade, bright, as we entered the shadows of the trees and emerged again. To our right, the wide pale green river flowed, the irregular facets of its surface catching the light from different angles so it glinted light and dark. Occasionally it frothed white as it tumbled over rapids.

About two kilometres along, the path turned inland slightly as we crossed a wooden bridge over a small tributary. Now woods lined both sides of the path, but we could hear the Salzach beyond, still on our right. A kilometre or less more, and the path opened out into the sun once more as we approached a spear-shaped spit of land, known locally as the Spitz. Here, two rivers join: The Salzach to our right and, to our left, the Saalach. Converging at the Spitz they flow together northwest, forming the border between Austria and Germany.

On the sunny spit, children played in the sand. A couple of teenagers sat talking, water lapping their feet, looking toward the opposite shore of the Salzach. We walked to the tip of the sand, the strand rapidly narrowing as we reached the slender point, the very tip of the arrow. There we found two pairs of black shoes, empty toes pointing northward, toward the water, as though two friends had simply walked out of them and kept going, away across the water.

‘Looks like the Rapture’, said himself, as the light sparkled on the water.

Sitting on a miniscule grass-covered promontory above the strand, we watched the rivers’ flow. The mingling of the waters of the Salzach met the water of the Saalach was marked by slow swirls, the underwater tension evident in a sinuous ruffled edge, one side pale blue-green, the other a deeper yellow-green. Moving side by side, the two waters began to dissolve one into the other. Gradually the distinction blurred, the curlicue edges dissipated, and the two waters were one.

We ate our sandwiches and drank our wine at a shaded picnic table at the V-shaped edge of the wood, where the path turned back on itself, running southwest along side the Saalach, away from the confluence of the waters. Walkers, joggers and cyclists passed us on one side, turned at the sharp bend and continued in the opposite direction on the others side of us. After a while, we put the remainder of our wine in the back of the bike and joined them, following our noses and, taking the path away from the Salzach, cycled on, with the Saalach – and Germany – to our right.

It was good to feel the warmth of the afternoon as we pedalled along, muscles working, under the overhanging greens between shadow and light, light and shadow, passing other cyclists and walkers. A young girl sat astride a tiny brown and white pony, which a man and woman led by its bridle; an older couple walked beside a young woman pushing an infant in a stroller. We felt relaxed and free, at home in the countryside of a new place that is becoming familiar.

On the opposite side of the river we could see the footpath on German side. At one point, water tumbled over the bank and into the river. In the stillness, shaded by trees and viewed from across the expanse of water, the foaming waterfall looked like a painting from the Barbizon School. The path, temporarily deserted at this point, seemed otherworldly, remote and isolated. Soon, though, we began to pass houses, and we could see ahead the bridge where the thoroughfare that links Salzburg and German crosses the river. We rode up the Radweg – the bike path – to the pedestrian bridge and discovered to one side of it an hydroelectric plant. There, arrested by concrete, the river swelled and surged, its surface opaque and taut with pressure, before slipping over the spillway and, freed, speeding northward.

We continued west along the road, heading for Freilassing, the town just over the border. I was curious to know whether I can bicycle there to shop, if necessary. And we discovered it can be done with relative ease.

At last we turned back, cycling back to the Spitz, where we sat in the late afternoon sun, drinking the last of the wine and watching children play on the strand. Beyond the children, beyond the arrowed-tipped stand, the waters of the two rivers mingled and poured away northward, where they will meet first the waters of the Inn, then the Danube and, eventually, flow into the Black Sea.