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.


  1. Culture clash live, very well written! As a reader I was pulling my own bag closer, withdrawing into that corner with you...

    I remember an occasion years back, when we had just moved to L.A. from the Czech Republic. One of the kids in the neighborhood was celebrating its fourth birthday, my daughter was invited. The children played in the sand box, we moms sat around the back yard table, talking about preschools, careers, diapers whatever. The conversation was lively, everyone seemed happy - until I brought up politics. Silence, followed by more silence...

    Funny thing is, what matters as I look back is something totally different: we were new to the 'hood but these neighbors invited us to their party. They reached out; I got to meet them and their crowd; one of the other guests eventually became my good friend. Reaching out is something Americans excel at. It is a skill you can be proud of - and one reason I look forward to returning to California.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Christina. I'm glad to know I communicated the experience.

    It's funny, my husband has brought up religion in a lighthearted way in his workplace. Just a passing comment, twice. He got dead silence and then the subject was changed. It takes time to get the hang of things.