Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Fourth, Abroad

In Salzburg, of course, there is no Fourth of July. There’s simply 04.07.10 or 4 Juli. Accepting this is an adjustment a native-born and -reared American must make each year she finds herself far from barbecues and parades, fireworks and Sousa marches, awaking on the morning of a day which date has for a lifetime held specific and particular significance to discover it’s simply another day for everyone around her.

It’s not that I’m a particularly patriotic American. I left the country without regret and suffer no longings for it, save my sadness at leaving behind dear friends and family. I’ve settled, as well as is possible for me, where we have lived since and am not eager to return.

I learned, however, my first summer in Europe that I can’t simply ignore traditions that have been part of my life since childhood. That first year in Ireland, I was sent a notice by the HSE – the national health service – asking me  to ‘attend’ the outpatient radiology unit at the regional hospital in Waterford for a mammogram on 4 July.

I considered requesting another date but thought, ultimately, what would be the difference? It would be simply another Friday in Ireland, with people going to work and doing the shopping as usual. There was no reason to re-schedule the appointment, although Himself and I briefly discussed planning a party. Why bother anyway?

I remember driving, for the first time on my own, the 50 or so miles to Waterford that July morning. The middle part of the journey, between Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, passes through particularly beautiful countryside. The tree-lined River Suir and the gentle Comeragh Mountains, rising stately and green, lie on one side of the road; on the other side, rich pasture land, dotted with fine houses, rolls off toward the horizon. I negotiated the confusing road works as I approached Waterford city, found the correct lane to cross the intimidating bridge across the mouth of the Suir, wound through the ancient streets and found the hospital without getting lost. At that stage, before I had passed the Irish driving test, to have done it alone felt like my own declaration of independence.

I had the car radio tuned to RTÉ’s Lyric FM, which features an eclectic mix of classical, light classical and standards, thinking that, given the connections between America and Ireland, and the affection the Irish generally have for Americans, they would play something to mark the occasion. I was hoping for my Fourth of July favourite, ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’. Perhaps even ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. Something spirited. It wasn’t until my return trip, though, during the lunchtime request programme, that the presenter dedicated songs to mark the occasion. But instead of a rousing march or triumphant anthem, she chose the poignant path, selecting the plaintive ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ and Jay Ungar’s achingly tender ‘Ashokan Farewell’. (Which choices may reflect something of the complicated relationship between Europe and America.)

Flooded with emotion, I took a chance and stopped in Clonmel to seek out an American friend who lives there. But when I went to the shop where she works, she and her boss were involved in a time-sensitive project, too busy to talk. The connection I sought would have to wait.

'Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,' indeed.

I learned the lesson that July, and the following year Himself and I, along with my American friend from Clonmel, planned a barbecue for a few friends. As it happened, my brother the airline captain had a layover in Limerick that day, so he was able to join us. I located a collection of Sousa marches online, and, blessed with a fine warm day, we had, in our small way, a Fourth of July party. Sans fireworks, of course.

So as July approached this year, we considered, then rejected, the idea of hosting a barbecue. Life is too complicated right now. We decided instead simply to go into the Altstadt and enjoy a Sunday afternoon together in Salzburg. Before leaving, I listened to the United States Marine Band playing ‘The Stars and Stripe Forever’ – one small concession to sentimentality. Then, I having furtively wiped my eyes, we set off for the city centre.

The Salzburg Festival opens in just a few weeks, and there are even more visitors on its streets. Crossing the bridge over the Salzach and entering a platz in the Neue Stadt, we were passed by a group of young Americans, enjoying the heat of the day in shorts, tank tops and flip flops. There was no red, white and blue to be seen.

We continued on lazily, admiring Beaux Arts buildings and peering into shop windows, finding breads in the shape of elephants, stainless steel cookware, men’s watches priced far beyond our budget, tempting handmade shoes, and tracht, Austrian traditional dress. At a photographer’s window, we stop to gape at the large, arresting image of a nude woman playing the saxophone, long platinum-blonde hair and white skin against a white ground, with just a patch of black. Another group of Sunday ramblers, a man and two women with a child in stroller, stopped beside us, also staring at the photograph. From his stroller, though, the child was impressed by a second photograph in the window, that of an infant lying on the palm of an adult.

‘Die Baby, die Baby!’, he called out, over and over.

‘Ja, ja, die Baby’, his parent replied. With some relief, I assumed.

In the Mirabellgarten – the formal gardens beside the schloss built by a 17th century prince-archbishop for his mistress – the gold tulips of Easter time had been replaced by yellow pansies, marigolds, red begonias and salvia. We wandered its paths, staying in under the shady arbours where possible. The garden is where the ‘Do-Re-Mi’ scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed, and it’s popular with visitors, many of whom can be found having their pictures taken in front of the Pegasus foundation featured in the film. But it’s popular as well with ordinary Salzburgers, who sat on benches in the shade, dozing, talking or simply, I suppose, thinking, a small study of humanity.

Back on the other side of the river we sat under an umbrella in a large platz, drinking beer and watching people passing, among them a woman pushing a stroller in which sat a small terrier, its ears pricked with excitement.

‘Now I’ve seen everything,’ said Himself.

Our beers finished, we wandered in the direction of the Festival Halls, which, as it turned out, were open on the very afternoon for a free preview of the coming programme. Why not?, we asked each other, and went inside the larger of the two, the Grosses Festspielhaus. And, again through simple good luck, we found ourselves just in time to attend an hour-long free concert, a kind of sampler of coming concerts. Markus Hinterhäuser, pianist and Festival music director, played duet with another pianist, then discussed the upcoming Festival. But the real crowd pleaser was the percussion ensemble that followed, directed by Martin Grubinger and featuring a fascinating array of metal, wooden and skinned-covered surfaces –  in every shape, size and colour – designed to be beaten, hammered and otherwise struck. I’ve been wondering if my procrastination and hesitation would rob us of the chance to get a taste of the Festival. Now it seems more accessible.

Outside once again in the late-day summer heat, I looked up at the skyline of domes and steeples against the pale horizon. Salzburg is a beautiful city, and I felt alive, joyous, and very glad to be there, just one among many on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, simply taking it in, walking aimlessly and leisurely, pausing to look at art in the windows of galleries or admiring bright coloured beads in jeweller’s. We passed through the platz in front of the Dom, now nearly entirely filled with the stage and a huge bank of bleachers for the traditional Everyman performances that open the Festival. From there we passed by the giant chessboard where a game was in progress. And then on to the gem-like St Peter’s cemetery – another The Sound of Music location – with its bright flower-covered graves and painted iron grave markers.

The caretaker motioned to us as we turned toward the back of the cemetery, saying something in German. A woman standing nearby, an American, said ‘I think he means don’t go back there.’ It was true; it was nearly 7 and the gates of the cemetery were about to close. We moved toward the other gate, the woman and her companion walking near us, stopping to admire the flowers as we did.

'They’re so beautiful,’ said the other woman, also American. ‘I’ll have to keep coming back.’

I agreed. ‘It’s one of my favourite places in Salzburg. I come here every chance I get. You should see it at Easter, when the graves are all golden with daffodils.’

She looked at me, a little surprised, perhaps questioning. I said, simply, ‘We live here.’

As we parted, I again felt my good fortune

Shortly afterward, home at last, and having barbecued wurstl and opened a bottle of wine, Himself treated me to another concert, one for the Fourth of July. He whistled, in its entirety, ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’. It was a virtuoso display of just one of his many talents.

I am lucky indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment