Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Speech Lesson

More and more I am able to function, albeit at an extremely low level, in German. This is not to suggest fluency or anything more than a modicum of comprehension when reading signs or looking at newspaper headlines. And I can make myself understood, after a fashion, in small transactions. The other day, for instance, I was able to make an appointment at the hairdresser even though the receptionist on the other end of the phone spoke no English.

At the grocery market, the servers at the deli counter, where each week I select from a dazzling array of cured meats and sausages, no longer urge me to speak English because ‘It’s easier,’ as one of them used to tell me. They now coach me as I make my choices in halting German, patient, anticipating my choices – they now know my favourites – and naming the meats.

Yesterday I went to the small neighbourhood shop several blocks from the flat. Because of its limited choice and odd opening hours, I don’t often go there, but still the woman at the till recognises me and greets me in a friendly way. Our conversations have been limited to German for she claims to speak no English.

I asked for a baguette and she held one up from the bakery tray.

Geschnitten?’ she asked, making chopping motions with her hand.

‘Nein. Ganz, bitte.’ Then, having second thoughts about my grammar, I added, ‘Ganz oder ganze?’ I’m still trying to work out where the gender of the noun governs the adjective.

‘Ganz,’ she replied empathically. Gans ist’ – and here she made animated noises while waving her hands – ‘Squawk, squawk, squawk, squawk.’

I understood immediately. By failing to pronounce the Z properly – it requires a front-loaded T sound, like the Z in pizza – I had sounded an S. Ganz means whole; Gans means goose.

I nodded. ‘Ja, ja. Danke.’ She had spoken with kindness and a bit of humour, and I appreciated that she respected my efforts to learn.

Seeing I hadn’t been offended, she went on.‘Gans ist duck.’

Now I shook my head. ‘Duck ist “Ente”. Gans ist “goose”.’

I left the shop and bicycled home. In spite of the cold rain and gathering dusk, I was content. Across the ragged edges of disjointed language, the woman and I had connected, however briefly. There had been a bond created, however slight.

This is what I spoke of when I told my husband about the encounter later: the buoyancy of spirit that comes with seeing, really seeing, another. There was something accepting, even generous, in her pointing out my mistake.

‘See. You helped each other,’ Himself said. ‘She corrected your German, and you corrected her English.’


Monday, November 22, 2010

Autumn Light

I’ve been reading at William Fiennes’ The Snow Geese for several months now, slowly following his journey from Texas to the northern reaches of Canada as he tracks the spring migration of the birds. The book is in part an extended meditation on home and missing home, on homesickness, nostalgia and longing. And on days like today, with the dim light of a low-lying sun never seeming to reveal the sky, longing, homesickness and nostalgia are very present for me.

While I love autumn’s beauty, captivated by its palette of bright colours set against the austere neutrals, a contrast that quickens my pulse, it can be a difficult time. For me, death and other losses litter the autumnal landscape. The fading light of the dying year casts these losses in starker relief. The wood next to our flat is no longer a tall green wall. The bare branches of its tree now weave a dull brown screen that filters the light. Inside the flat, the wooden floors gleam darkly; only when I light the lamps – as early as 4:30 or 5 – is there brightness, and that willed.

That’s not to say we are giving into gloom. Yesterday – Sunday – we climbed Kapuzinerberg, one of the two mountains around which the core of the city is built. It is the taller of the two, 640 metres, and it is mostly green space with trails and a small fortress built during the Thirty Years War, now gasthaus serving snacks and beer, at the top. (The Festung, the city’s signature fortress, sits atop the more heavily developed Mönchsberg, the mountain on the other side of the Salzach.)

The last time we climbed Kapuzinerberg, it was a warm late May afternoon, and we panted under a tall canopy of green until we reached the top. Yesterday we climbed by a different route, and the dim light reflected off a thick carpet of copper-coloured beech leaves. We were warmed with exertion, but stopping at a precipice and looking north, we soon became chilled. However, we stood long enough to see that part of the city spread below us, and I was surprised at how many landmarks, strange to me not many months ago, seem familiar to me now.

At the top we stopped to look southeast, but here the landscape was less familiar. Some Sunday afternoon, we agreed, we should explore those street just to see what’s there. Then we descended, keeping to our left the city wall built on the steep flank at the same period as the small fortress above. Wall and fortress were so effective a deterrent they were never tested.

We didn’t stop for beer and wurstl in the gasthaus because we were going directly to Schloss Leopoldskron. Commissioned in 1736 by one of Salzburg’s prince-archbishops, Schloss Leopoldskron is an elaborate rococo palace that sits on the edge of a large pond in an expanse of green space.

In the early 20th century, it was bought by theatre and film director Max Reinhardt, famous locally as one of the founders of the Salzburg Festival. During the war it was confiscated by the Nazis as ‘Jewish property’. After the war it was bought by the American foundation, the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, and is now used as a conference site. Fans of The Sound of Music recognise its lake as the location for some of the film’s outdoor shots and its grounds and one of its façades as models for the sound stage set of the Von Trapp villa.

However, it is closed to the public every day except one day a year, which was yesterday, when it was open for tours. By the lake, its small formal garden open for an Adventmarkt.

Along with other residents of Salzburg, we waited on line for nearly an hour to view this national treasure, with its stucco ceilings and chandeliers, its faded Chinoiserie room, the gilt and mirrored games room, and the elaborate neo-rococo library, with plaster cherubs and beautifully carved wood, the latter interior commissioned by Reinhart.

The tour was conducted, of course, in German. I was pleased to realise that though I could not follow word for word, description by description, the guide’s commentary, I was able to at least follow the general outline of her remarks. Even though Himself, better at German than I am, filled in some gaps, it is reassuring to find I’ve made even a little progress in German.

It was late and the dun-coloured light rapidly fading when we left the tour to wander the stalls of the small Adventmarkt. We inaugurated the Weihnachtsmarkt season with our first cup of Glühwein, mulled wine popular at the street markets that will soon be open all over Salzburg, as well as throughout most of this part of Europe.

Then, just as we were about to leave, a children’s chorus began singing, and we stopped to listen. They stood in a narrow gravelled path at the edge of the lake. Torches were burning around the grounds, and the lights on the far side of the lake as well as from the garden reflected in its dark waters. The faces of the chorus –  young children and older boys, their voices already deepened, along with a few adult women – were illuminated by a couple of lamps. We listeners were in near darkness, the flickering light occasionally catching a face in the crowd. The chorus sang what must be traditional German and Austrian Christmas music, of which I understood a word here and there.

Then came a familiar song, odd to me in the circumstance, knowing its commercial roots. But, as it happens, ‘I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing’, which began life as a Coco-Cola jingle in the seventies, became a popular Christmas song in Europe, as I learned while living in Ireland. Yesterday, the children sang it with enthusiasm.

Driving home in near darkness, through a part of Salzburg that seems remote from my daily life, I was pleased to realise how familiar have become the mysterious, winding streets of even this part of the city, tucked into the curve of Mönchsberg, where not many months ago I got lost. Last night I knew, almost without knowing, the way. Shops and street corners have become landmarks, if only subliminally. I felt as though, had we turned off Mavis, our Mistress of the GPS, I could have guided us home.

Which reminds me of William Fiennes and his reflection on homesickness and nostalgia. He writes of turning his longing for the home he loved in the past into ‘a desire to find that sense of belonging, that security and happiness, in some other place. . . . The yearning had to be forward-looking. You had to be homesick for somewhere you had not yet seen, nostalgic for things that had not yet happened.’

I am not sure who I am these days or what my job is, not sure what nationality I represent or where my home is. But every small bit of progress I make – in learning German, in knowing my way around Salzburg, in writing something new – makes me feel more grounded in where I am now and gives me more hope that I will be able to manage where I will be tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Queen of Katzenstrasse

Saturday night, three families from Katzenstrasse gathered in a kitchen for a evening of warm friendship. Our neighbours across the road, Sigrid and Gerard, who with their eight-year-old daughter had recently returned from a week in Barcelona, cooked a pan of paella and made sangria. Hannes and Edith, their neighbours next door were there, and Himself and I were made to feel very welcome.

With Tom Waits and Bob Dylan playing in the background, conversation around the candlelit table flowed with the wine until late in the evening. In German and in English, as well as my own stammering ‘Germlish’, talk ranged from the merits of analog over digital recordings, the romance of tube-powered electronic amplifiers, Barcelona hotels and cafes, American policy toward Cuba, the Tea Party movement, theatre, pregnancy and birth – I now know the German for a Caesarean Section is Kaiserschnitten – emigration and immigration, languages, lineage and ancestry.

Sigrid and Gerard, Edith and Hannes, were very kind to move so freely between German and English, switching fluently and frequently between the two, so Himself and I could join the conversation. Himself is better at German than me. I recognise some percentage of words in any sentence, but their sense lies just beyond my grasp, tantalising and mocking me. I can tell by the context what's being discussed, but sentence by sentence, I don't understand it.

The German speakers, on the other hand, were interested in the differences between American, Irish and British English. We discussed words that have different meaning in each culture. ‘Bold’, for instance, generally means courageous or audacious in American English. In Ireland, however, a ‘bold’ child is one who ignores or challenges adult authority. Or one might be ‘as bold as a dog’ and behave contrary to community standards. These usages clearly share a common source, but the nuances of their meaning have shifted.

We talked about cats, too. For cats were among the assembled. Jimmy, the ancient cat of Sigrid and Gerard, came in the sliding door, wandered toward his dish, and ate briefly. Then he stood at the door to be let out again and, not long after, stood looking in the glass door to be let back in. Jimmy, at 95 in human terms, limps with arthritis now; he sometimes stands stock still for minutes on end, as if wondering why it is he has come into the room, what it is that has now slipped his mind.

Hannes’ and Edith’s Mona, the queen of Katzenstrasse, was there too, threading her way between our feet and majestically inspecting the room. An established member of the household next door, Mona is famous for making herself at home in Gerard’s and Sigrid’s house as well as in ours. Nearly daily we have found her on our step, pressing herself against the door frame as we fumble with the key. We are used to her presence most mornings at the bedroom window as she waits on the deck over the garage, ready to curl up on the bed at our feet. That very afternoon we had returned from the grocery market to find her on the doorstep. We unlocked the outer door and then, seeing Sigrid in the street, stopped to visit with her.

‘Die Katze wartet,’ she said, greeting us.

Indeed, the cat did wait. When we climbed the stairs with our groceries after chatting briefly, we found Mona, regal and serene, reposing on the chair outside our flat door. She came in with us and settled on the cushioned breakfast bench. She was still there, three hours later, and we had to carry her downstairs to put her out when we left the house to join the dinner party.

At dinner, Edith told of the fish Mona had brought into the house that afternoon, bait stolen from one of the fishermen on the lake behind the house. Hannes recalled finding another fish, still flopping, on the living room floor. He took it to the lake and tossed it in. Moments later, Mona returned and laid the same fish at his feet. There were tales, too, of her gifts of the creeping, fur-covered things from the wood next to house.

Himself and I reminded Edith and Hannes of the week they were in Rome over the summer. Mona, always ready to be held and cuddled, presented herself at the door even more frequently. We left the bedroom window ajar each night; each morning we would find her, a grey lump at the end of the bed. Waking, she would catch at our feet moving under the covers, capturing toes with teeth and claws. At breakfast, she found her place between us on the breakfast bench and, rolling onto her back, graciously presented a wide, white belly to be caressed.

Telling these stories, we joked that Mona must be surprised to find her three families assembled in one room. ‘What are you doing here?’ we imagined her saying. When she went through the sliding door and out into the darkness, we bid her goodnight. ‘See you, Mona!’

Near midnight, the dinner party broke up and, saluting each other with pecks on both cheeks, we said goodnight. The fledgling friendship between us, the foreign recent arrivals, and the long-time friends and neighbours, had strengthened. We parted, promising to meet again soon, the next time at our house. Discussing the evening the morning after, Himself and I remarked on how thoughtfully the others had included us by speaking both English and German. And we recalled with great pleasure the liveliness and intelligence of the conversation.

It was Gerard and eight-year-old Olivia who found Mona, on Monday morning sometime about 8. She had probably darted out from behind a wall just as a car pulled away. The car couldn’t have been going fast, not from the end of the street. The driver, whoever it was, probably doesn’t realise he or she hit the cat.

I saw Gerard from our kitchen window as we were eating breakfast. He was standing at a ground floor window staring uncharacteristically into the street. It turns out he was considering phoning us with the news, but he decided to wait until my husband came out of the house on his way work so he could tell him in person. My husband rinsed clean the site with our garden hose, then came back into the house to tell me.

As with all news of sudden death, there was that instant, lasting seconds or microseconds – who can say – of a kind of dual reality; I was momentarily numb and dumb in that short space during which the apperception of a piece of information I didn’t want to acknowledge as other than fiction gradually became real. Mona would never again jump onto the breakfast bench beside me or stand on the step arching her back into the door jamb or knead my stomach as I petted her or stare into the bedroom window, waiting to be let in.

On the street, I stood with Edith and Gerard staring down at the place in front of our house, now washed clean and terribly empty, where Mona had lain. Behind us, Hannes busied himself with the shovel. Our eyes were raw and our expressions wondering. How could this have happened? Katzenstrasse is a safe street, remote from traffic and, with its wood and nearby lake well stocked with fish, a kind of paradise for cats, as Gerard remarked. How could Mona have been hit?

Mona, the queen of Katzenstrasse, was bold in both the Irish and the American sense of the word. It was as if, more than most cats, she acknowledged no master or authority. She moved between the three families in the three houses with an attitude of entitlement, secure in her welcome in each. She found her way onto the deck beside our window and waited calmly until we let her in. Once inside she headed to her favourite spots. If we sat next to her, she calmly inserted herself onto our laps and nudged her head into the crook of an elbow, her front paws kneading away. I kept a towel for her on the chair in the living room where she liked to watch as I did my morning stretches. Then, when breakfast was over and Himself had left for work, she’d sleep for two hours or more as I worked.

Mona was round and soft, obviously well looked after, so we didn’t feed her. But if she was in the kitchen as I prepared a meal, she would jump down from her favourite perch on the bench and weave her body between my feet, loudly meowing. If I had meat out to thaw and left the kitchen, she would boldly jump onto the worktop and seize it, once wrestling the plastic-wrapped treasure to the floor. She was audacious in going after what she wanted.

Mona was our first guest in the house, and she knew it intimately from the time when the previous tenants, a family with children, had welcomed her. She frequently ran up the stairs to sit at the attic door, waiting to be let in. We’re not sure what attractions it held for her. Jacob, the man who carved the doors and ceilings of walnut and cherry, had his workshop there. Himself often joked that she was drawn there by his ghost. Maybe now, he says, Mona’s ghost is there along side Jacob’s.

Perhaps her ghost will keep us company. This morning, though, we were aware of the empty space between us on the breakfast bench. The sun shone through the window behind me in the office, but Mona did not leap up to sit in its warmth. The chair next to my yoga mat was empty too, the grey towel folded and pointless beside it. And each time I pass the bedroom window, I look away from it, not wanting to see the blankness there.

On Monday morning, as Gerard, Edith and I stood in the street remembering Mona, we recalled with a smile our joke the night of the dinner party, when all three of her families were gathered in the same room.

Edith said, ‘Maybe she decided her work was done. Maybe she thought, “I’ve brought them together now, put them in one room, pointed them toward friendship, and that’s enough.”’

Perhaps she’s right. Mona did draw us together. Sigrid and Edith take care of each other’s cats when they travel; the first real conversation I had with Gerard and Sigrid was about the strange grey-and-white cat who came into our house with such assurance. The friendships grew when I was able to look after the cats when both families were away on the same weekend. By making herself at home in our homes, she wove three households into a community.

Now, with Mona’s death, our shared sadness draws us together even more. As our friendship flowers, the dinner party will be just the first of many evenings of shared conversation and laughter. And when we meet, we’ll remember the queen of Katzenstrasse.

To Mona. Prost.’

Monday, November 8, 2010

Katzenstrasse Autumn

Autumn has brought beauty and melancholy to Katzenstrasse. The wood at the end of the street is a tangle of brown trunks.  Through them, I can see the bronze litter of beech leaves carpeting the ground. Just in front of them, the leaves of the quince tree still shine bright yellow. A sweet gum tree blazes crimson and copper next to a slate grey roof. Beyond the bare trees, beyond the field to the south, the bulk of Untersberg, hidden all summer by a dense fence of towering trees, now can be seen blue on the horizon.

I’ve been turning over in my mind why these scenes are so moving. There is in the contrast of the bright warm colours laid against a background of neutral browns and cool blues and greys an emotional charge, like the striking of a minor chord, that moves in a particular way. Seen by the weak light of short days, the charge is potent.

It was late in the afternoon one day a week or so ago that I got off the bus at our stop, the last one on the route. The light was soft brown, as it is so often these days, filtered as it was through the veil of the trees, their slender twigs forming tracery like that of cathedral windows. Another woman had gotten off just steps ahead of me, and I followed her as she turned right at the corner. I lengthened my steps to keep up with her as we passed under gold of the beech leaves along the street. When she turn left at my turn, my curiosity was piqued. Usually I walk from the bus alone, for few come as far as my stop and fewer still head in the same direction as I do.

We approached the field; its strips of brown earth and alternating green lay under a light dusting of the morning's snow. In the middle distance, white steam from the Stiegl brewery smoke stack rose against a silver sky; Untersberg's bulk loomed blue-grey in the distance. When she turned right at the small wooden shrine that stands at the edge of the field I hurried after the woman. There are only a handful of houses lying in this direction; I didn’t want to lose sight of her. More and more it seemed the woman must be a neighbour of mine, yet I didn’t recognise her at all.

Her boot heels tapped the pavement, my own echoed hers. She passed the three houses on the right; she didn’t turn into the street on the left. When sheat last turned down Katzenstrasse, I quickened my steps even more, lest she disappear before I could see where she went.

At a gate about four houses along, she stopped and turned toward me. As I approached, she spoke to me, some friendly query, I supposed.

‘Es tut mir leid,’ I replied. ‘Ich spreche nur ein wenig Deutsch.’ It’s my standard reply, trotted out now in shops, on the bus, in the street, in doctor’s office: I speak only a little German.

I could see comprehension in her eyes as she nodded her head in the direction of our house at the end of the street. She knew who I was. Then, without a word, she turned away from me, into her gate, leaving me standing in the street.

Before she could go, I stuck out my hand. ‘Ich heisse Lorraine,’ I said, and she stopped long enough to take my hand and tell me her name. We managed to smile at one another, and parted then with some faint warmth between us. Still, it shook me a little. She is a woman near enough my age, not unlike me in dress or manner, and yet the barrier between us was as great as that.

Hands in my pockets, I continued under the thickening light toward our house at edge of the towering wood. Mona, the grey-and-white queen of Katzenstrasse, met me at my doorway. She ran lightly ahead of me up the red stone stairs and waited at the carved wooden door. Once inside, she jumped onto the cushioned bench in the kitchen and, purring, set about grooming her smooth, clean fur.

In the gloom of the autumn evening, it was good to have her company, someone to talk to.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


It was sometime after three in the afternoon, and we had been walking the quiet valley in Southern Bohemia for about three hours. Coming out from the wood, up a gentle grade past summer cottages clustered at the edge of a meadow, then past several at the edge of a stream, we began to hear traffic passing on a nearby road. The forest gave way to fields, then the occasional industrial building. Next we walked along a narrow road lined on both sides with compact houses. A mother in a doorway could be heard loudly giving out to her child before finally relenting. In ways, the neighbourhood reminded me of certain streets I’ve walked along in Southern California. It was not a prosperous or impressive street, but the houses, each with its small garden, some with wreaths of autumn colours on the doors, reflected pride and a sense of belonging, the acknowledgement of being ‘at home’ felt by the homeowner.

Himself and I, on the other hand, were not feeling at home. We were hoping that, when we came to the end of the street, we would recognise enough of the landscape to discover where we had parked the car. Though neither of us said it to the other, with each step this hope seemed increasingly dim. We were not even sure we were coming into the right village.

There was not much traffic on the road we came out onto. Nor were there signs to identify where we were. I approached a man walking out of the gate of the yard before a small machine shop. ‘Do you speak English?’, I asked.

He shook his head.

‘German?’, I tried, then added quickly, ‘Deutsch?’

By this time, Himself, normally reluctant to ask directions, had reached my side.

‘Bahnhof?’ he asked. The stranger didn’t seem to speak German either, but this much he understood and pointed around the bend to our left.

How far? ‘Wie weit?’, asked Himself.

The man held up fingers. ‘Vier.’ Four. Zero. Zero. Only 400 meters. Good news. Except I was pretty certain by now that we were not in the right village after all. And by now, we were unable to agree on even its name, retaining only the vague sense that it began ‘Tri’ and ended with a V. Or maybe an R.

We were lost.

All Saints Day is a holiday in Austria and, for the first time since we arrived, the holiday fell on a Monday, giving us a long weekend. We decided on a short holiday stay in our favourite Český Krumlov pension. We spent a lazy Sunday afternoon on our room’s balcony, wrapped up against the chill and looking across the river at the fantasy-like painted tower. Later we strolled the streets, quiet and nearly deserted this cool Halloween evening, stopping to watch the play of light on the dark river. In the morning, after an indulgent and late breakfast, we set off to explore the surrounding country, following directions in an old guide book.

Leaving the road from Český Krumlov to České Budějovic, we wound around a small neighbourhood of houses, through fields and into the faded village of Zlata Koruna, site of a 14th century monastery. Another five kilometres farther, in another village, we turned right to find the railroad station we were looking for, really just a open-fronted shelter at the edge the tracks. We parked in the small car park and a few metres away found the shrine the guide book had mentioned and just beyond it the dusty track also mentioned. Two tracks in fact, one turning to the left and down a shady leaf-strewn hill, the other forking to the right. Studying the posted sign and map at the trailhead – in Czech, of course – we came to the conclusion it was loop trail and decided to take the path to the right and walk full circle on the return. So off we went, crossing a broad field that smelled of a recent application of natural fertilizer. The broad path headed toward a copse of tree away in the distance. Reaching that, it descended under the shade of trees into a valley where the river ran.

Our destination was Dívčí Kámen, the ruins of a castle built in the first half of the 14th century and abandoned two centuries later, in 1506. It lies in a valley between the Vltava river and one of its tributaries, a stream called Křemežský. Following red-and-white markers painted on trees, we walked along the winding path as it crossed and recrossed the stream, shaded by dense wood, a drift of golden leaves underfoot. Then, following iron markers indicating hrad, we started climbing again, up the rocky outcropping on which the castle is built. Soon we were climbing stone steps and walking along what must have been the barbican before entering the arch of a stone bastion. We could see the hollow in the wall that must have housed the enormous beam to bar the gate.

The castle stands high above the valley floor, and many of its walls are intact, though crumbling. It is impressively large, and walking around its perimeter, we looked down at the steep hill falling sharply away beneath the walls. The remains of a tower at an outer defensive wall stand, giving a view over the valley. From the floor of the castle interior, you can see massive red, white and grey boulders incorporated into the walls, the stone fissured in neat straight lines. The residence of the castle, at the end of an enclosed courtyard, apparently stood three or four stories high. At the top of the wall large windows also look out across the valley, too high to have been vulnerable to arrows or other missiles. It must have seemed impregnable, surrounded by water, its walls rises several hundred metres above the valley floor. It is currently under restoration; in fact a pair of men were at work with mortar and stone. Still, it is surprisingly accessible, open to all who take the trouble to find it. Rough timber benches have been assembled, suggesting the availability of informational talks and concerts.

From the barbican walls we looked across the quiet valley, trees still thickly leaved, though whole patches of deep yellow and orange stood out against green. Nearby is strange formation of rock, a narrow free-standing wall of shale-like grey-black stone. This natural rock wall stands about 70 metres high and extends possibly 20 metres deep, but it is remarkably narrow – as little as two or three metres at some points. It juts eerily into space, tall and narrow with irregular faceted face, water at its base, trees growing around it and from it. It too must have formed some natural defence for the castle.

The castle ruins, hidden in the wooded valley, the brooding wall balanced beside it, the dark waters of the winding stream and wider river, and the pale late-fall light seemed other worldly, as though we were lost in a mythical place, beyond time, beyond the familiar. And so it seemed as we picked the path, heading along the trail now marked with yellow-and-white symbols painted on trees. We considered how far we had walked. Two or three kilometres? More? I ventured it was as far as from our house in Ireland to the barracks at the juncture of the road to Cahir.

Did I really think it was that far, my husband wondered?

I didn’t know because we haven’t yet seen how far we had to go.

And so we walked, uncertain when we would return to the loop trailhead, talking of this and that, trying to remember how many bridges we had crossed along the way, stopping to look at overhanging rock formations, wondering if the summer houses we passed had been, before the Velvet Revolution, those of Communist party officials.

‘I don’t remember those red buildings,’ he said at last. Nor did I. Clearly we were not yet at the end of the trail.

The noise of traffic from the road was louder as we approached a slip road. But which way should we turn? Himself thought left; I favoured the right. And soon we were walking that direction, lured by the yellow-and-white symbols I saw along the way. Not long after that, we found ourselves on the small street of houses, then out on the main raod where the stranger pointed us in the direction of the bahnhof.

Which, when we found it, was not the train station where we had left the car. We were now in Holulov, and we had no idea how far it was to the car, or even which direction to turn. We stood near a mounted tourist map, though, and we were able to locate our starting point. It was Třísov, and it seemed to be about two kilometres away. A school boy, about 12, sitting on a bench near the station, didn’t speak either English or German. However, he gave directions in Czech, delivered with incomprehensible fluency and accompanied by a succession of motions indicating that we should go straight, then right, then left then right and . . . .

To us, bewildered tourists, they made no sense at all.

There was no one else about. The tourist office, signed with the familiar green i, was closed, as was the café next to it. We looked around at roads going right, left, up and back in the direction from which we came. At last, we looked at the train track, its twin rails pointing neatly, inevitably, unequivocally to our destination.

And so we started walking again, in the fading afternoon light, through the broad countryside, stepping from railroad tie to railroad tie between the iron tracks.

 I was nervous, periodically looking over my shoulder. Shouldn’t we walk along side the track, I urged, starting every time a car or truck engine roared in the distance.

‘Don’t worry,’ Himself assured me. ‘You’ll feel the vibration as well as hear it.’

I knew he was right; still I tried walking to the side of the rails. I found myself stumbling over rubble, scraggy shrub and the corners of ties, however. It went smoother stepping neatly along the ties, some of them creosoted timber, some smooth concrete. Passing markers every tenth of a kilometre, we counted down our progress. I was relieved when the rails crossed the river to find we were not on a narrow trestle but on a wide earthen bridge nearly indistinguishable from the surface we had been crossing.

The midday blue had drained from overhead; the sky faded to monochromatic pale tones. To our right, hills curved gently upward where here and there dark cattle and sheep grazed. To our left, the land dropped off into a shallow valley where the bright gold and russets of the trees were also dimming to shades of monochrome. Distant trees bristled blackly along the horizon. The grey tarmac road cut diagonally across the broad fields and the tracks, then disappeared. We wondered aloud at the strange sight to passing drivers we must make.

It was late now, and I was getting tired. I stepped from tie to tie with less energy than before. It had been many hours since breakfast, and I began to stumble, catching the toe of my boot on the edge of the ties or on the protruding spikes. I looked over my shoulder, wondering if, in the face of an on-rushing engine, we could jump clear in time.

At last, though, the gentle curve of track unreeled and I could see, in a grey-toned space at the edge of the world not far from a wood, half hidden by a red car behind a white one, a navy blue car.

‘The car. I see it!’

It was indeed our car, though we were still about five hundred metres from it. In my excitement, I began leaping again with enthusiasm, nearly running.

‘Slow down,’ said my husband. ‘Hang on!’

I did so, reluctantly. However, there were just a couple hundred metres to go. Then, finally, we were in the car and out of the chill, boots replaced with soft shoes, tucking into the food we had packed – cheese and ham and pâté, apples, rolls and fresh tart.

‘Hunger makes the best sauce of all,’ said Himself.

And he was right.