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.


  1. Winter in Austria used to get to me, especially in Vienna where the sun hardly comes out between December and March or April. At times it can seem life has turned into a black and white movie: grey houses and the grey silhouettes of bare trees against a grey washed sky. What a monochrome!

    But for me there were also the annual treats: the advent markets you describe; the cafes, noisy and packed, filled with the aroma of coffee and hot chocolate; dances in the Hofburg or in one of Vienna's many other grand buildings; concerts at the Musikverein; excursions to places outside of town where the sky is blue and inversion layer syndrome turns into a city life phantom.

    I love your Fiennes quote and yet - the very few happy people I know have found their home not in memories of the past or in hopes for a tomorrow but in the here and now. In your vignettes from Salzburg you seem to be doing just that: living in the present.

  2. Thanks, Christina, for your insightful comment. I look forward always to what you post.

    I think Fiennes' thoughts about nostalgia and homesickness will come up again. There's something about trying to find oneself in the present . . . while simultaneously honouring or even forgiving who one was in the past.

    I don't know. Issues of identity seem to be pressing forward in work and in life right now.

    Thanks again. And Happy Thanksgiving.

  3. Happy Thanksgiving to you too. How will you celebrate it?