Monday, August 30, 2010

A Spy Visits Across the Pond

I ‘met’ Christina Schweighofer at her blog, Across the Pond, a few months ago. A journalist born in Austria, Christina and her husband lived in Prague and Los Angeles before moving to Vienna, where they and their children lived for two years. On the move again, Christina and her family have returned to Los Angeles, where they are now settling in.

I enjoy Christina’s blog for her insights into Austria, particularly Vienna. In fact, I turned to Christina for advice on a recent weekend trip to the city. She very graciously invited me to write a guest post, which you can now read at Across the Pond.

In the meantime, I'm working on the next post, which I hope you will find here very soon.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Sound of Music

Months ago, during my first week in Salzburg, I got lost.

I had walked through the Altstadt southward, away from the Dom, and wandered through the winding lanes near the Kajetanerkirche until I reached the southeastern toe of Mönchsberg, the mountain on which sits the massive white fortress, the Festung Hohensalzburg. There I turned right, thinking that I could keep walking clockwise around the mountain and come back round to the Altstadt.

I was wrong. The geography of the city is not that simple. The footprint of the mountain is larger and more complex than I had, naïvely, assumed.

I’ve been to the corner where I turned right several times since, wanting, in part, a clearer mental map of where I went wrong. But I also wanted to find Nonnberg Abbey, which I knew was somewhere nearby. You can see its distinctive red onion-topped steeple from most places in Salzburg, rising over the large blue-green dome of the Dom, nearly as high as the Festung itself. It should be right there, along the streets I walked. But like a mystical city lost in the interstices between this and a parallel universe, the abbey eluded me.

Nonnberg Abbey is a Benedictine convent founded in the 8th century by St Rupert. It’s reputed to be the oldest convent in the German-speaking world. Part of its fame for tourists to Salzburg is due to its having been the convent where Maria Augusta Kutschera had begun her novitiate before going as a tutor to the family of Georg von Trapp. It is where the pair were married in 1927, and its exterior was a location during the filming of The Sound of Music. I was curious to find it if only to tick it off the list of things to see in Salzburg. (Researching Nonnberg since, I’ve realised there are cultural and aesthetic reasons to make a special trip to visit the abbey.)

Sunday, a warm day with the rain holding off, Himself and I set out on our bicycles to explore the area again. We followed my original route, turning right at the southeastern toe of the mountain, and soon found ourselves on a tiny square opposite a church looking up at the southern aspect of the Festung. There was no sign of the abbey from there. So we turned back and cycled through the twisting lanes again. Still no sign of the abbey, until, at last, we noticed a small street sign set into the stone wall in a small fold in Kaigasse. ‘Nonnberggasse’ it read.

Securing our bikes, we found ourselves at the foot of a very long series of steps that disappeared as they ascended along a narrow passage between buildings. From our vantage on the street, we couldn’t see any sky above them. Exhausted after a long uphill cycle earlier in the day (but that’s another post), we started climbing. A few minutes into the climb with no sign of the end in sight, we spotted a group coming down the steps.

‘There, the man in the green shirt,’ I said, pointing to the figure at the top of our field of vision. ‘If we don’t get there by the time we’re at that step . . .’

Himself completed my thought. ‘We’ll reconsider our options.’

But, when we reached that point, we were at the top of the steps and Stift Nonnberg was to our right. A gravel path swept around the edge of the mountain; spread out beyond us was the green Salzach valley. Directly below, we could see the narrow street with its domed church and tiny green square we had recently left. From here, I could see the steep path than ran from the street level to where we were, another way to reach the abbey. Nearby, a large sign outlined the geological history of the valley. We were standing where once, hundreds of thousands of years ago, an enormous glacial lake had covered the region.

At our backs was the small gate to abbey itself. Inside it, we found a compact courtyard in front of the church. Inset in its stone walls were memorial stones carved in low relief, some of them with naïve-looking images, some with ornate death’s heads and inscriptions in German Gothic script. Several graves ranged along  the wall, three of them seemingly completely overgrown with ivy. I thought of the women who lay there, their names obscured, with no children or grandchildren to remember them. Does the same oblivion await me, I wondered, with no descendents to recall my life?

There was a constrained feeling about the courtyard, enclosed narrowly between the wall separating it from the outer path and the walls of the church itself. Himself remarked that he could still not see the distinctive red onion steeple, but, craning our necks and searching overhead, we saw it at last, rising overhead with a gilt clock on its tower. It was quiet on this late Sunday afternoon, in the small courtyard far above the busy plätze and gassen below, most of them filled with tourists, festival goers and ordinary Salzburgers enjoying a dry warm day. A bird sang in the tree, and we spoke quietly, conscious of the privacy of the nuns within. At last, though, we mounted the worn red stone porch, pushed open a thick, battered wooden door, and passed between the carved figures on the jambs of the Gothic doorway.

The interior was illuminated faintly by dim light passing through high clerestory windows. It is small, a late Gothic church, containing a nave, two aisles and side chapels under groin vaulting. Completed in 1506, it replaced an earlier Romanesque church destroyed by fire in 1423. We could barely make out the soaring winged altarpiece beyond the chancel arch, its gilt flamboyance dulled in the half dark. Beneath the altar is a crypt where the remains of St Erentrudis, the founding abbess, lie. Steps on either side of the altar lead down to it. Peering into it, I could see stone floors and wooden benches reflecting the half light. At the back of the church, under the nuns’ choir and behind clear panels, one can see the faded colours of the remains of graceful frescos from the older, replaced Romanesque building.

These details we noticed later, though. What we were first aware of, after the creaking groans had subsided when the heavy door clanged shut, as our eyes adjusted to the low light and we seated ourselves on uncomfortable wooden pews, was music. A choir of women’s voices was singing, their voices drifting towards us from somewhere above. Opposite us sat a young man, alone, motionless. A few pews in front of us was a couple, also motionless as they listened. We sat, rapt, enchanted. It was the nuns at their afternoon office, sung gracefully with rich, sweet voices, accompanied by organ. Now and again a soprano voice rose above the rest in melodic solo before rejoining her sisters in the chorus.

Conscious that we had, once again, been lucky in our timing, we sat in the near dark listening for some minutes. I turned round to see high above us, at that back of the nave, the windows into the nuns’ private choir. They had been swung open. Looking up, I could see frescos decorating its shallow vaulted ceiling. I could see nothing else, though. The nuns were secluded in their own world, celebrating their centuries-long monastic tradition.

After a time, the singing stopped; the organ continued, swelling majestically. Then there was silence. Silence above and silence below, as we eavesdroppers in the half-dark sat still, still wrapped in the heavenly voices, still held in the magic middle passage, that enchanted space that marks the transition between song and absence of song.

The silence stretched out. At last came a quiet swish, swish, swish from beyond the windows above. Himself leaned toward me and whispered, ‘It’s the chair seats flipping up.’

That it was. We stood, ready to let the day continue in its flow as we slipped once again into the life of Salzburg.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Katzenstrasse revisited

I’ve written before about Mona, the cat who, with her sister Lisa, shares the house with our neighbours Edith and Hannes. Mona is as audacious as Lisa is shy. She roams the neighbourhood, coming into this house as well as others. She appears suddenly and pushes herself into our legs, demanding attention. She needs no invitation to settle herself on the bench at the breakfast table. Grey and white, she’s fat, sleek and confident.

Edith and Hannes are away on holiday this week. They left Mona and Lisa in the care of me and another neighbour, who goes into the house twice a day to put down fresh food. The cats came come and go into their house as they please through cat flaps. But they are lonely. The neighbour with the keys tells me the food is not being eaten. Even shy Lisa can be found at our doors, hungry not for food but attention.

Mona, bold as ever, has taken to spending even more time in this house. First thing in the morning, before Himself is even up, she appears at the door that opens from the bedroom onto the flat roof of the garage. Let in, she snuggles on top of the bed or settles purring in my lap. I’ve put a towel on a chair in the living room so she can make herself comfortable there. Holding her in my lap, I recall our beloved cat Puisín. How hard it was to leave her in the care of our neighbours when we were away for two, even three, weeks at a time. When we returned, they would tell of her loneliness.

‘She missed you,’ they would report. ‘She seemed depressed.’

I knew they had done what they could to care for her, but the pangs of guilt and fear that thoughts of her loneliness brought haunted me during every trip we took. I think of that as Mona presses her head against me, purring as I stroke her.

It looks, however, that Mona, affectionate as she is, is fickle, quite fickle. For Edith and Hannes have been gone only a week and already she seems to have transferred her loyalty to me. As a mark of her appreciation, she has just now laid at my feet a love offering. A very small, still warm, inanimate but only recently so, dark, fur-covered token of her affection. She is extremely proud, brushing against my legs then moving toward the tiny still thing, anxious that I should see it.

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

I hope Hannes won’t be jealous.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Frau Frau

Our neighbour, Frau Frau, has moved. I had heard she was leaving, but we’ve been away, and I only just learned she is gone. However, somehow, I’m not sure why, I felt her absence even before realising she had gone.

Superficially her house looks the same. Her window boxes – at every window, upstairs and down – are bursting with brilliant red geraniums. I can still see the painted gnome on the patch of lawn at the back of her house where it overlooks the fishing lake. And her mobile aluminium clothes line still stands in front of the house. But the house has been oddly still all week.

Perhaps it's the clothes line that triggered, subliminally, my awareness of her absence, for I had become used to seeing it hung with sheets or towels or night dress or trousers most mornings when I rise. Even though I rise early, Frau Frau’s wash was hung out before I was up.

She first caught my attention right after we moved to this house on Katzenstrasse when I saw her cycle out one morning, rain hat and jacket against the chill. In her early seventies – at a guess – she reminded me of the famous landlady my husband once had, years and years ago, when he lived for a time in Germany. Every morning, he has reminded me, again and again, she would cycle out for fresh rolls from the baker for his breakfast. For nearly 25 years now, he has noted that I do not cycle out each morning for fresh rolls from the baker. When I saw Frau Frau on her bike that morning, she looked to me to be the kind of woman who did.

I never met Frau Frau, though I waved a few times from my first floor kitchen window. I don’t know that she saw me, but it looked as though she might have. She never waved back. I was told she doesn’t speak English, and with my baby-steps German, it seemed pointless to try to introduce myself.

So, not knowing her name, I called her Frau Frau because she seemed, well, like the archetypical Frau, the sort of traditional householder I’ll never be. I imagined her house to be as clean and neat as ours is cluttered. Each of her sparkling windows was hung with a white lace curtain. When we moved here, a week before Easter, a small tree in her garden was hung with painted Easter eggs, an Austrian tradition. On Easter Sunday, I watched from the window as she greeted guests, teenagers lagging behind their parents, apparently come for dinner. I took them to be her children and grandchildren. There were no embraces as she met them at the door.

Soon after Easter, the eggs were removed from the bush, and in her deep window casements there appeared a display of dolls, each about 18 inches tall, dressed in blue and white check. Soon after that, I knew without being told, the metal bracket under her windows would be fitted with window boxes. When I told my husband they had been put into place and planted with flowers, he said, ‘Are they red geraniums?’

Of all the tidy houses on Katzenstrasse, Frau Frau’s house was the tidiest. Around the side of the house, her timber was stacked precisely, each of the sticks cut to the same length, as is the custom here. Nearby, a wooden bird feeder was mounted on a stout support. Here also a cast concrete bird bath stood; under it, a concrete white goose stretched its neck upward. Walking by, I often saw mallards from the lake ignoring the goose as they scoured for fallen seed under the feeder.

Frau Frau cut the grass herself, pushing the electric mower over the smooth deep green lawn. A tall woman, still sturdy and strong, one hip lifted slightly as she walked, giving her a somewhat rolling gait. But she worked along side much younger people when the timber was cut – by electric saw – and wheeled in a barrow around the side of the house. Looking closely, I could see the flowers in the window boxes had been covered, protecting them flying particles. And when the saw had been packed away, there she was, hosing away the fine sawdust.

On the days when rubbish was collected, I checked her house for the yellow plastic sack – the Gelbe Sack – of recyclables that is collected on a schedule I’ve not yet figured out. If one appeared at her gate, I felt assured that it was time to put our out. There was about Frau Frau the predictable that I found reassuring and grounding.

In fact, that’s perhaps why I recognised she is gone. On rubbish collection day, the space by her gate was oddly empty. Too late I realised I should have had my Gelbe Sack in front of our driveway. Still it didn’t click. It was two days later when the air of vacancy about the house moved me to ask another neighbour.

‘Oh, yes. Saturday was her first night in her apartment.’ Saturday, the night we were away.

Looking more closely today, I can see the small cues that must have alerted me to the change. Though all ten of window boxes I can see from our window are still crowded with geraniums, behind them one or two windows are bare of curtains. From behind the red blooms, they look blank. In spite of the flowers, the house looks expressionless.

I had been told she had sold the house to a young couple. It’s simply too large and requires too much maintenance. Her apartment is closer to the city centre, right on the bus line. I know the area; there many bright buildings, each several stories high, surrounded by well-maintained grass. I’m sure it will be convenient and far less demanding. But I wonder at the loss of space, the view across the lake with its ducks and swans, and the beauty of the wood, green now, soon to be gold and amber.

I hope Frau Frau will be content in her apartment. Friends, family, clubs, church – all of these may keep her busy now that she no longer has to mow the lawn and stack the firewood. But the tiny red-and-blue painted gnome, abandoned under the shrub in the still-tidy garden, haunts me. Will the young couple hang the bush with painted eggs next spring? Will the windows again bloom red all summer long?

I miss her already.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Love and Death: Hallstatt continued

We spent the weekend in Hallstatt, the village I wrote about some weeks back. Part of the Dachstein-Hallstatt Salzkammergut World Heritage site, Hallstatt is a pretty village that sits perched at the edge of Lake Hallstättersee, a large glacial lake. If you’re planning a visit to the Salzburg region, I recomment making time to spend a night or two in Hallstatt. You’ll not only get a taste of a charming alpine village, you can use it as a base to explore the Dachstein peaks, riding the cable car from a station a few minutes’ drive away.

The houses of Hallstatt are crowded together at the base of the mountain that soars steeply behind them. In summer, their already colourful facades are even brighter, with flowers tumbling from window boxes and courtyards blooming with trees and fruit. It was a hot afternoon, and at the harbour we found a jeweller who rents electric boats for €16 an hour. Cruising the lake’s calm waters, we see could the houses clustered at the shore and rising in ranks up the green forested mountainside. At shore level stands the small Protestant church with its slender graceful steeple. Above it, literally caved from the mountain, the 16th century Catholic church, Maria Himmelfahrt (Assumption of Mary), stands on a small outcropping. It’s best seen from the water; on our previous visit, we hadn’t even noticed it, so entranced were we by the buildings clustered around the market square.

We trawled lazily around the lake, taking in the village and the towering peaks cradling the steep valley. We could just make out the slender sails of para gliders riding the thermal streams thousands of metres over our heads. Directly across the lake, the white towers of the bahnhof stand near water’s edge. Every 10 or 15 minutes the red cars of the train were reflected in the waters as it passed on its way toward Obertraun, another resort village further along the opposite shore. In fact, because parking in the village is very limited, the train is a good way to arrive in Hallstatt. A boat is available for the short journey across the lake.

Back on shore we began exploring on foot, following the roar of rushing water to where an old mill once stood, powered by a waterfall from high on the mountain. From there, a narrow street wound up the mountain; turning, we saw the lake spread blue and placid beyond us. A few steps more, and we came to the church, home of a pair of exquisite late Gothic winged altarpieces. Standing over two metres high, these intricately carved, gilded triptychs date from about 1515. By Leonhard Gmundner Aist, they depict scenes from the life of Mary and from the Passion of Christ. Even more moving are the life-size polychrome statues of the crucified Christ flanked by Mary and St John, also by Leonhard Aist, that stand just inside the church door. Mary’s face is a study of restrained grief; John, seeming to gaze inward, looks utterly bereft.

Carved from the mountain as it was, and standing on a very narrow cliff, the church offers extremely limited room for burials. So for hundreds of years, the dead were buried in its tiny graveyard, only to be exhumed after some years had passed so the graves could be re-used. The exhumed remains were then placed in a charnel house – the Beinhaus – at the back of the churchyard. The painted, some elaborately, skulls are on display there. It was as well that the charnel house was closed when we visited; I can think of few things I'd less want to see.

However, we wandered the churchyard in the late afternoon light. In the quiet, a man raked the walkways, and a woman in a blue apron filled a green water can to water the flowers. With the soaring mountains and the blue-green lake as backdrop, the churchyard is bright and calm. Like the St Peter’s churchyard, famous in Salzburg, it is filled with tidy graves lying close together, each planted with colourful flowers, each identified by decorative iron or timber markers, the wooden ones carved, the iron one painted. It's a lovely place, a peaceful garden set against a dramatic view of lake and mountains.

Back on the Marktplatz below, we had beers on the terrace of the Grüner Baum, an old hotel that’s been recently refurbished. In the quiet half light, it was beginning to be cool, and the waitress offered me a bright peach-coloured blanket. Wrapped against the chill, we sat quietly, watching as the lake reflected the gold of the setting sun in the paling sky. Finishing our beers, we wandered on. I stopped to look at reproductions of Hallstatt Culture artefacts in a shop window, but Himself, hearing music a little farther along kept walking. When I caught up with him, he was standing next to an open terrace, at the edge of the harbour, from which the music came.

‘Can we eat here?’

I remembered passing the place on our way in a few hours earlier. In a small space, next to an open shed that housed a couple of cars, what looked like a private party was in progress. A few dozen people sat at tables shaded by a tree while trays of food and bottles of wine were passed. Now, looking more closely, I could see that waiters were bringing food from the Brauhaus Lobisser, just across the way. The party, gathered around the musicians, took up but part of the terrace; the rest of the dining area was still open to the public. We found a table directly on the water’s edge, just few feet away from the party, and ordered. On the other side of the low balustrade, a few ducks bobbed on the water, undoubtedly used to receiving scraps.

It was a small party, a wedding celebration, as it turned out, of about forty or fifty people. Children, some of them wearing traditional clothing, others simply in dress clothes, ran laughing between the tables while their parents and grandparents relaxed. The bride, a slender handsome blonde woman wearing an elegant low-backed dress of deep Prussian blue, moved among the guests, smiling. The groom, tall, handsome, with blond hair to his ears, wore bundhosen with a frilled white shirt. A pale pink rose was pinned to his braces. We remarked on the importance of lederhosen in festive life here. Like kilts in Scotland, or Hawaiian shirts in Hawaii, they are worn on formal or ceremonial occasions even though they are not, strictly speaking, formal attire.

The band continued to play as bride and groom visited with their guests, danced, posed for pictures and embraced, all with the easy grace of the self-assured. Musicians and guests were gathered under the wide canopy of a horse chestnut tree, its twisted, bulging branches and knotted roots attesting to its long years of service. Globes covered in orange cloth illuminated from within hung from its branches. They were suspended around a single, much larger, white globe that shone like a low-hanging moon as the evening progressed. The band’s violinist, accompanied by a guitar, upright bass and accordion, started out with popular and traditional songs then, improvising, transformed the familiar airs into lively polkas and waltzes.

The sun, now out of sight, still cast gold on the fissured limestone faces of the mountains and on the soft, undulating waves. Slowly the light faded. As the bridal party danced, we – along with other diners, all apparently tourists – celebrated with them, lingering over beer and apricot schnapps. At length the mountains were dark silhouettes against a paler blue, glowing sky. From the tallest peak – Dachstein – a single bright light shone. Under the white globe, the bassist began singing, in English, Brown-Eyed Girl.

‘Do you remember when we used to sing,
Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da.’

The wedding guests danced, while we, an uninvited audience, bobbed back and forth in our seats, dancing with them.


And then the musicians put away their instruments. The bride stood and thanked them and her guests, inviting them into the gasthaus across the way. Himself thought he heard the word ‘Disco’.

‘We could always gatecrash that,’ he said.

But we didn’t. We paid the bill and walked through the quiet narrow streets and through the now-deserted Marktplatz to our hotel, let ourselves in the front door and crept up the dark stairs to our bed.

‘Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da.’