Monday, December 20, 2010

Snow Days

Last week, Salzburg shivered in below-freezing temperatures all week. Snow covers the mountains and fields, buildings and monuments and, here on Katzenstraße, despite repeated shovelling, the street. The six-hundred metre walk to the bus stop is icy in places, deep in snow in others, and, on the main street that the city keeps salted, slushy. On Thursday, cold and tired, I stayed home rather than take my packages to the post office.

Still, it is beautiful. The towering trees in the wood next to the house are layered white on brown. There is a six-inch cushion of white covering the weathered timbers of the car port next to the house. The birds I feed – mainly blue tits and blackbirds – flit in under the high wide eaves over the veranda and perch briefly and then fit back to the snow-laden branches, which then bob and dislodge clumps of snow that fall to the white carpet underneath. Sometimes squabbles arise between the birds, and they squawk and swoop toward the thick beams supporting the eaves. Wednesday, a female blackbird and a blue tit got into it. The blackbird flew off toward the wood, the tit flew into the window pane with a great bang. It remained, nearly motionless, on the tiles for a long time, occasionally tipping its head as if to reassure itself – or me, anxious watcher – that it had survived and was just regaining its full senses.

Despite the cold, I did go to the Altstadt that morning to run a few errands and, mainly, to wander the city, taking in the sight of its buildings and monuments under the stark contrast of snow and dull sky, on the one hand, and the bright lights and brilliant Christmas decorations, on the other. On Wednesday morning, the Advent markets were not as crowded as they are on the weekends. The small wooden huts, brightened with colourful merchandise, signs and lights, fill the Domplatz and the Residenzplatz. Along the long stretch of Altermarkt stand a row of back-to-back stalls selling food and – everywhere – glühwein, each stall representing one of many social or service organisations. My favourite sells bosna, long thin spicy sausages heated in an electric frying pan and served on a long narrow bun with onions, mustard and a sprinkle of curry powder. I wolfed one down, eating rapidly, bare hands chapped and red, stamping my feet in the snow, as I tried to keep blood flowing. It was barely lunchtime, a bit early, but the glühwein, hot and spicy, went down well too.

I took a few minutes to wander through the old cemetery behind Stiftkirche St Peter. The icy path and cold didn’t encourage me to linger. The graves, usually bright with greenery and flowers, lay covered in snow. Snow clung settled into the crevices of the upright iron grave markers. Still, the dead were not forgotten. A wreath of tightly woven red berries was dusted with snow as it lay on one grave. In front of another, a couple in their late sixties had stopped; the man solemnly crossed himself and took off his hat as the woman waited at his side. Behind the grill of one of the family tombs stood a Christmas tree decorated with red tinsel and bulbs.

Inside the dim porch of the church itself, an old beggar sat by the door, his hat extended. It is his place; I’ve seen him there before. Past the second set of door, pale light shone through the windows at the top of the vaulted nave and illuminated the white ceiling with its green rococo mouldings. I sat for a while, letting the peace of the pure light wrap me as it descended on the dark paintings and gaudy life-sized statues of saints. It barely penetrated the dim recesses behind the piers and the dark wood of the confessionals, pews and kneelers.

Before leaving the Altstadt, I visited the Advent market in the Sternplatz. The smallest of the several markets, it is my favourite with its selection of wooden ornaments, hand painted sculptures, woollen hats, sheepskin gloves and pure wool socks, pashminas and more. I got chatting with the woman at the stall selling glühwein. It turns out she is the manager of this market and she sells some of the handmade hats. It also turns out she lived in the same area of Los Angeles 25 years ago when Himself and I lived there too. (She recognised me by the Trader Joe’s bag I  had on my arm.) I bought one of her hats but passed on the glühwein; one was enough.

Standing in the crowd at the bus stop I was tired and cold, wanting to get home and warm again. The pavement at our feet was not just slushy. In places there was brown nearly freezing water an inch or so deep. I was careful to stand back from the kerb because as the buses approached, they splashed dirty water up over the footpath, calling to mind Ezra Pound’s bitter parody of the Medieval song. Behind us, the Salzburg flowed sluggishly northward as white gulls swooped and shrieked, sounding like quarrelling and crying children. Even the beauty of the pastel coloured fin d’siecle buildings on the opposite bank, like jewels swathed in elegant white, were not compensation for the cold.

Looking at the dirty water under feet, I saw a pair of feet that were remarkable for not being booted like the rest. A woman’s, they wore only a pair of thin patent leather flat shoes, quite pointed at the toe, and no socks or stockings. The bare flesh flushed red. Why? I wondered, would someone go out like that in freezing temperature.

The bus arrived; I stamped my ticket and found a seat by a window. As I made to sit down, a tall thin woman, in her late seventies if not older, approached it too. I hesitated; she hung back. Then I sat down in the window seat and she in the one next to me. As I settled in and adjusted the packages on my lap, I looked down. She wore black patent pointed leather shoes and no socks.

Looking at her hands, I realised she wore no gloves either. She had on a light-weight quilted rust-coloured coat and a hat made of fur. But she wore no scarf and the sweater at the open neck of her coat was thin.

Why? Again I wondered. I studied her thick-knuckled fingers, chafed looking as she held them in front of her. Looking sidelong at her face, I worried. She stared steadily ahead, erect, self-contained and seeming independent but also, somehow, frail, bird-like, vulnerable.

I wanted to tell her she mustn’t be out in the weather without proper shoes, warm stockings and gloves. She needed a scarf. Impulsively, I wanted to speak to her. In fact, it may have been only my inability to speak German that stopped me. What would I have said, anyway? In what world does a stranger admonish an adult about dressing warmly, however kindly meant. No more than rushing to the aid of the stunned bird earlier would my interference have accomplished anything.

As we approached my stop, I made to stand, and she turned her thin legs sideways to let me out. With my back to the door I watched her, noting the protective way she held her cheap handbag to her side, still gazing steadily ahead. Then the bus shuddered to a stop, the doors opened, and I stepped carefully onto the crusted, snowy kerb.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Er kommt!

The other night Himself and I stood with a small crowd that began to gather at 5 pm at the top of Linzergaße. Having strolled up the gently rising street, past its shops glittering with clothing and shoes, past the small markets with trays of candied fruit coloured like shining marbles, past its small cafes and Konditoreis with their pastries and gühlwein, we shivered in the cold and waited anxiously. From a tiny courtyard at the end of a narrow alley near where we stood we heard the occasional deep knell of several iron bells, about the timber of a large cow bell.

‘Er kommt.’

‘Who comes?’

‘Der Krampus kommt.’

The sound of the bells grew more frequent and more insistent; the excitement of the crowd swelled as more people crowded in; my tension rose. I had heard the Krampus is truly frightening.

‘I don’t see why people take their children,’ someone had said. ‘It’s too terrifying.’

She was right, of course. Which is precisely the point, at least traditionally. The Krampus is St Nikolaus’ counterpart, a threat, the awful consequence of what may happen if child or adult is not good. In this part of the world the passive threat – a lump of coal, the absence of gifts, the punishment of void – does not suffice. The Krampus is an active presence, come to scourge with chains and punish with birch rods.

The clamour from the bells suddenly increased over a tumult of voices as a red figure appeared in the entrance of the alley. It was St Nikolaus dressed – appropriately enough for a saint – in a red cassock with a bishop’s mitre. In Austria, St Nikolaus is still a church man.

On either side of the saint were two ghouls covered in pale-grey fur. Small in stature, they didn’t grab my attention because I was riveted by the other figures rushing out of the narrow gap. Tall – no giant – figures covered in shaggy dark fur like Chewbacca, they had his slump-shouldered massiveness. But these were monsters with enormous heads over which rose horns in high, wide arcs, thick and spear-like. From the shadows they poured into the street, the clanging of their iron bells raucous and insistent. They rushed toward those of us watching, brandishing thick switches, pushing their way into the crowd. One of them came straight at me, extended a claw at me, grabbed my head, then forced my face into his hairy chest. My hat askew, my glasses shoved into my face, I shrieked with genuine alarm. Others of the creatures loomed, arms thrust forward, threatening, as they stormed the waiting crowd.

One of their troop, however, taller and even more fierce, emerged from the shadows riding a wickerwork chariot pulled by two smaller beasts. Its face was illuminated by an open fire burning in a bucket suspended from the curved rim of the chariot, a horned skull hung from the front. The other ten or fifteen Krampuses weaved and bobbed around the chariot, darting into the crowd then back again, bells jarring, stamping their feet, jumping and lunging at those of us watching. Hurling themselves at the crowd, occasionally one would skid in the icy slush-covered pavement and, almost gracefully, on huge feet, ski along the street for a metre or so. But always they kept moving, jostling and shoving, their rictus-like faces glaring like the demons of nightmares.

St Nikolaus and his escorts had moved away down the street and the band of Krampuses surrounding the chariot-mounted leader followed in rag-tag fashion. Behind them, another escort of red-jacketed security volunteers and uniformed Polizei formed a line, the security volunteers linking hands to form a cordon to keep the watchers from engulfing the Krampus troop. Slowly we all moved down the narrow street, lit by dangling Christmas lights. The baroque steeple of St Sebastian’s church gleamed serenely against the black sky; below, accompanied by their strident bells, the fiend-like creatures circled the chariot in a frenzy, faces in fixed grimaces, claws pointed into the crowd. The crowd, held back by the security patrol, gathered and heaved behind them.

Despite the press at my back, despite my alarm at both the creatures and the crowd, I was fascinated, drawn forward. Linking hands, Himself and I shouldered our way forward, not wanting to lose sight of the spectacle. I stared at the intricate masks, each one distinctive in its artfulness. Open mouths with permanent leers revealed fangs. Snout-like noses were squashed with gaping nostrils. Ears were pointed or wing like or torn and shredded. A tongue protruded from a lurid grin; bulging obscenely, it skewed sideways. Some masks were dark or dun; others had complexions of lurid colours – red, green, yellow and orange. The large, globe-like bells, strapped so they hung on the creatures’ backs just above the buttocks, appeared obscene at times, like protruding bulbous baboon bottoms.

On we pushed, the tribe of Krampuses keeping a frenetic beat, the clamour of the bells and primordial dance, round and round. Every few paces the vortex of swirling bodies, bells, chariot and fire stopped while the monsters turned outward to the watching crowd. We filled the narrow way, surging and swelling as we went. On either side of the street rose five-story and six-story faded pastel buildings from the 18th century. From upper stories, windows opened out as people leaned out into the chill, watching. We inched along, moving about 500 metres over a half hour, the press of the crowd becoming stronger. Himself and I had managed to keep, for the most part, immediately behind the security cordon; behind us, a handful of young men in their late teens shouted and pushed. I stiffened my body and locked my knees to avoid being shoved into the back of one of the police.

At last we came to a curve in the street. The Krampus troop bore to the right down an darker street; Himself and I went left where the street opened onto a platz by the river. My feet by this time were numb; I tried stomping them to get the blood flowing. We joined another crowd, much smaller, gathered around a stall selling gühlwein, the spiced hot wine ubiquitous in the Christmas markets.

Back home, safe and warm again, we considered the seething crowd and flailing, bobbing monsters in the eerie, sulphurous half light of the narrow street. It was genuinely alarming. From a child’s perspective, it must be terrifying. But the procession was led not just by the chariot-mounted Krampus but also by the gentle and benign St Nikolaus as well. Maybe, Himself observed, there’s something in facing out your demons – as in writing, for instance – and then coming home to a warm, well-lighted room, that makes some things come out okay. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Winter Arrives

Snow has come to Katzenstraße. There was a light dusting last weekend, the day before we shared with friends a scaled-back Thanksgiving dinner. There wasn't enough snow to shovel though. Sunday night it began snowing lightly, and by morning there was a good blanket of it up and down the street. So I had a ‘shovel experience’ for the first time since I left Salt Lake City over thirty years ago.

It wasn't too bad. We got most of it, save the icy tracks left by the cars that had already driven past the house. I showed our guests, over from Ireland, how to get to the river from the house, walking up the still snowy street, around the end of the fishing lake — really a man-made pond — and through the park to the riverside walk. The water on the pond had begun to go slushy with ice, freezing from one end toward the centre. That left a small contingent of ducks huddled at the still-liquid quadrant, dark against the snow, muttering softly among themselves as they nuzzled the snow with their bills. I don't know how they make it through the winter, but I expect they know what they're doing at this point.

The next day was a clear day with a pale blue-washed sky. I set out to walk along the riverside path myself, first taking a trail that runs alongside a wood on one side and horse pastures on the other. When I got to the beginning of the path, which is paved with tarmac, I found it hadn't been shovelled or gritted. It was treacherous with ice. First I tried keeping to the packed snow in the centre, then I tried walking along the edge of the path in the thicker snow. Still, I found that rather than stepping out boldly, stretching my legs in a good walk, I was having to place my feet carefully. When I felt my steps begin go out from under me, I gave it up and turned around, settling for a walk around the pond. It was not as entertaining — I dislike walking in circles — but at least my feet could find purchase on the dirt track.

It snowed again overnight, and I was up early shovelling it. Now it has begun snowing again, and there's at least twice as much on the ground as I removed this morning. I'm wondering if I should go out and start again. The pond too has now disappeared into whiteness. Only a slender margin of dark steel blue remains. Winter is closing in on the ducks.

Still, for all the shovelling and trouble walking, it is beautiful. The wood next to the house is a study in line, white on brown. The trees in the middle distance make a thick pattern of line against the blank sky that can be said neither to glow or to have colour. It's just a pale void. Seen from my window, the world in its stillness has a certain passivity, a kind of eternal earth-bound white gravity.

It's not entirely lifeless though. The snow capping the tree branches collapses and falls in rapid streams. Blackbirds and blue tits flit past the windows and fly up under the tall eaves of the veranda next to my office, where I've put out crumbs and nuts. The tits, tiny bright things, investigate the porous stone facings of the house, looking for seed or perhaps the husks of insects. A bird takes off from a branch, leaving the shell of a leaf vibrating in its wake.

There are tracks in the snow: those of birds, of course, and those of some small four-legged creature, a cat’s perhaps or some wild thing from the wood. The cat tracks haunt me. I look at the thick unblemished blanket of snow covering the deck over the garage, just beyond the bedroom window, and grief ambushes me again. It should be patterned with Mona’s prints.

I feel the end of the year rushing at me too quickly. I'd like to savour the days. But, truly, I'm glad November, which is a hard month, full of the memory of losses both recent and long past, is over.