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.

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