Friday, February 26, 2010

The Fortress

Stepping off the plane into Salzburg’s surprisingly intimate airport, I was struck by the encircling mountains, some of them rising steeply right there, immediately in front of me. They reminded me of the mountains in my birthplace, Salt Lake City, where, seen at least from that city’s East Bench, alpine peaks rise with similar abruptness and distinctness.

If the mountains ringing Salzburg reminded me of Salt Lake City, the city centre couldn’t be more different. My husband’s immediate boss, visiting Salzburg from global headquarters in the U.S., was taking us to dinner in the Altstadt. On the bus from our hotel, we eavesdropped unintentionally on three American women, each about 20 years old. Obviously in Salzburg for a study abroad programme, they talked loudly about their class schedules and living arrangements until the most vocal got off the bus just before we crossed the river. At the Karolinenbrucke, as the bus turned right, away, we thought, from the Altstadt, Himself and I panicked, just a little, wondering where we were going. However, we were simply entering an area of one-way streets, with north- and south-bound traffic running on opposite sides of the river. After two more stops the bus set us down near our meeting spot, and we re-crossed the river.

Now, for the first time, I could see unobstructed the Festung, rising above the Altstadt even more abruptly than the Alps rise over the city. Illuminated, its white stone walls shone against the black sky. The bulbous blue-green domes of the Dom and what seemed like a half a dozen other churches bristled beneath it, also shining in the darkness. The river gleamed with light on one side of us, the steeples and domes clustered on the other, and dominating the whole was the white fortress hanging in blackness, blackness softened by a scatter of stars and sliver of moon

It was good to meet The Captain again after nearly three years. He and Himself had worked together at another U.S.-based tech firm, and they had built trust and mutual respect over their nine-year-long working relationship. By recruiting my husband for this new position, he had launched our Austrian adventure. Besides which, I like the man. Talking all the time of old times and news of his family, he led us through the narrow passageways of Salzburg’s medieval core. Even now, several days later, there’s an unreal quality to the adventure. It’s strange to think of myself not as a tourist visiting an historic city but as a new resident discovering the place that will, I hope, become home. Then, that first night here, the experience was dream like.

We walked through winding lanes, nearly empty on a Sunday night, that every so often opened out into a wider platz dominated by sculptures under pyramids of glass. Above us, church towers topped with ornate domes clustered forest like. Nearer to earth, glittering shop windows cast diffused light through dim streets. In the windows, light glinted from thousands of brilliantly coloured surfaces: jewellry, porcelain, antique silver, stylish clothes and eyeglasses, dirndls and alpine jackets, leather goods and shoes. Others were completely filled with bright Easter eggs painted all the colours of a vivid summer garden. And everywhere windows shone silver and gold with the foil-covered marzipan-filled chocolate balls, the confectionary specialty of the city, Mozartkugeln. Over it all, high overhead but very very near, the white stone fortress floated, stark and bright against the black sky.

We ate that night in a restaurant supposed to have been in operation for over 1200 years, since 803. Inside, dark wooden panels covered walls and the low ceiling, while fresh tulips filled vases. We sat and talked long. At last we emerged into the night, entering the series of large platz widening out from the sheer cliff wall on which the schloss sits. The lights cast shadows on bare rock, making it hard to see whether the buildings are carved from it or sit flush against it or whether there’s more space than is apparent between the wall and the buildings huddled in its shadow. Light and shadow, buildings with their sharply rising steeples lit brightly from below, empty platz and darkened statues, merged and separated. All seemed surreal; only the floating white fortress rose clear and sharp and solid in the night.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Departures and Arrivals

Driving through the shrouded countryside on the way to Dublin Airport, I was aware of how much I love Ireland and of how much I will miss it. It is easy enough for an American visitor to love the gentle countryside and brightly painted towns. What came back to me during the drive was the emotional scent of my short stays here, the string of visits stretching over 20 years now, from my first arrival in 1988. The particular musk of the land and buildings recalled from those visits, the mixture of anxiety and regard I felt always on the last journeys to the airport each year, passports and tickets, paper then electronic, checked and rechecked, as we worried about shifting the bags from car hire return to departure gate, these sensations returned as we made our way in the darkness to catch the 6:45 flight to Salzburg via Frankfurt.

On our drive north in the early hours, I glimpsed fragments of road signs, place names written in English and Irish, quick flashing reflections in the head beams. Despite the darkness, I tried to picture the unseen landmarks, now familiar to me, thinking of how they will be soon, again, recalled not felt. It’s not that the landscape of Austria and Continental Europe won’t be as beautiful. Perhaps I’ll find it even more beautiful, but it won’t be felt as home, as Ireland now is.

One day earlier, I had been startled by a drift of light snow falling through dense silver morning fog. Lasting only 25 minutes, it was enough only to dust the yard. So I was surprised to see thick snow covering fields, trees, roofs, footpaths, cars and fences starting when we came to Durrow, a town about an hour northwest of our house in South Tipperary. The landscape was white and the roads slushy all the way to Dublin, where snow covered car parks and cars. Snow is not common here, and I had not expected it at all so late in February. The runways had been cleared, but the airport and all we could see beyond was covered in snow.

As it turned out, snow caused something like havoc all day. The aircraft we were supposed to board about 6:30 had been diverted to Manchester. It couldn’t get from Manchester to Dublin because of crew scheduling problems or because of heavy snow in England, I’m not sure which. As a result, our departure time was delayed until 11:30, which meant making our Salzburg connection in Frankfurt would be impossible. So they put us on a later Salzburg flight and checked our bags through. However, when we went to the boarding gate, it turned out the aircraft hadn’t left Manchester. Our flight was now pushed back to after 2, again making it impossible to make our Salzburg connection.

So despite having cleared security, we returned to check in and managed to get on a flight scheduled to leave at 12:30, though it was also delayed, a matter of 20 minutes or so. What’s more, they upgraded us to business class, a perk I’ve never received before, which meant we could wait in the relative comfort of the business lounge. Our luggage, however, had been tagged for the flight now scheduled to depart at 2:45, meaning it would arrive in Frankfurt after we had left there. There was nothing to do about that, they told us, except notify Lufthansa/Austrian Air’s lost and found when we arrived in Salzburg.

Our flight touched down in Frankfurt at more or less the scheduled boarding time for our Salzburg connection. All passengers from the flight boarded a bus, which took us to a point from which we could go to baggage claim or boarding gates. First though, we had to join the passport queue. Travelling on an EU passport is easy enough in Europe, but my anxiety grew as the line shuffled forward. A few metres along, we joined even slower queues for security. Their thoroughness, demanding every one take off all coats and jackets, belts and watches, methodically putting everything in deep trays, meant the line crawled forward. Our flight was scheduled to depart in just minutes. My stomach swelled with anxiety as people behind us pushed forward; others asked to jump the queue, claiming connecting flights.

‘We have connecting flights too!’ said the woman in front of us and I as we waved our boarding passes and shook our heads.

Just as I finally handed over my coat and handbag and lifted my heavy carry-on onto the belt, I turned around to say something to my husband. Instead, there was a stranger, behind whom I could see Himself.

‘We have connecting flights too!’ I yelled at him.

‘Yes, yes! But I have a phone call,’ he said, which seemed a non sequitur. He pushed forward, despite me. Furious, I grabbed my things from the tray and stomped forward, thinking to find a Lufthansa gate agent to ask that they inform our gate we were there. No good; the gates were up another level. I turned back and accosted the man.

‘Why did you do that? You have no right! We have connections to make too!’

‘But I have a phone call!’

It didn’t make sense, but neither did arguing. I was conscious of people looking. Making a scene could mean we’d be delayed even more. Himself was gathering his coat and belt from the tray, as we half ran to the escalator, carry-on bags bumping behind.

The gate area was nearly empty, quiet. We rushed forward. ‘Auf Dublin?’ said one gate agent. They were expecting connecting passengers. Through the gate and down steps and into another waiting bus, we went dragging the bags along, finally settling.

Across the aisle in the crowded bus a tall man with gold-red hair laughed at us. ‘Relax! No stress!’

I tried to calm my panting. I must have been red in the face. I nodded, ‘Yes. Of course.’

He kept laughing and talking to us, cutting across the clamour. He patted his stomach, saying something more about stress I didn’t get. Did he mean that it made your stomach fat, as some claim? It turned out he was laughing because Himself was only then able to buckle his belt. ‘I’ve been travelling for 30 hours,’ he said. ‘Relax. It will be okay.’

And he was, of course, right. The Austrian Air turbo-prop craft landed in Salzburg just as the light was turning the buildings gold. We came down the tiny narrow steps, and I looked up to see against the colourless late sky white-covered mountains in every direction. The airport was quiet, calm even, and, in spite of the pressures that remained, something like peace descended.

As it turned out, the luggage did not follow us. Last night they had no record of it at all; this morning they tell us one of the two is on its way to the hotel. We’ve bought a couple of toothbrushes, toothpaste, a razor and shaving cream, and Himself is off to the office to settle in.

It will work out, somehow.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Checking Joy of Cooking last night for a pancake recipe, pancakes being the traditional Irish dinner the night before Ash Wednesday (traditional because the eggs, butter and sugar had to be consumed before the privations of Lent), I noticed a recipe for Austrian pancakes, Nockerln. The authors note: ‘In Salzburg, when we were last there. . . .’ In the 20 years I’ve owned the book, I doubt I'd ever noticed the recipe, awareness narrowly focussed always on the more familiar. In fact, until recently little about Austria had caught my attention. As European states go, for myriad reasons, it’s hard to overlook France or Germany, Spain or Italy, but Austria always sat on the edge of my consciousness, tucked away, the Alps perhaps too lofty to scale.

So, weeks ago, when we became aware of the possibility of moving to Austria, I started looking at history books and online maps, refreshing my knowledge of the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire, trying to understand how Austria fit into European history and geography. I realised how little I had ever thought or knew about Central or Eastern Europe. What’s remarkable is how different the map looks with the Atlantic and Ireland repositioned on the far western edge of the page and Turkey and the Middle East framing the eastern edge. Europe suddenly expanded, unreeling on the other side of the Alps, rolling away down the great plains of Hungary, passing mountain ranges and boggy ground I couldn’t have located months ago, rushing headlong toward the vast steppes of Russia and the Black Sea.

This week, in Ireland, though, I’m working through the checklist of things to be organised before the move, mostly involving paperwork and following through with bureaucracies: US tax returns (2009), Irish tax refunds (2008), filing receipts for the reimbursement for medical bills, and more. My husband is receiving, signing, scanning, and resending contracts and other documents. There are emails and phone conversations about shipping, temporary housing as well as renting a place in Salzburg.

There is another checklist, though, an interior one, directing my attention to sensation. The black roof tiles frosted as white as the rime-covered rough grass in the morning’s first light. One rabbit chasing another in the dim early light, dark form after dark form bounding through uneven tangles of wild grass. The tiny bold robin, head cocked, waiting two feet away as I scatter the day’s seed.

My mother-in-law’s dog, Sally, arriving first thing from next door to race through the house, claws clattering, eager to make sure we’re both here, before tearing out the back door and up the field. The sharp shard of yellow light striking the wall by the kitchen as the sun finally mounts the tall hedge to the east. The stab of light through the skylight, cutting a tilted square of brightness on the pale hall wall, warming the chill. The stark bare skeleton of an ash, branches and truck stripped to the bone by crows, rising from the hedge opposite my window, its spear-like upper branches scraping the sky.

These and more go into the album of the mind.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Clench. Unclench.

The month is half over, and by the end of March – six weeks – we expect to be not so much settled as resident in Salzburg. Perhaps we’ll be in a short-term self-catering flat. Or, if things go well next week, it’s possible we will have found an apartment.

But wait. Even if we’ve found an apartment, when will the container packed with furniture and household belongings arrive? It was almost exactly three months from the day the Spanish-speaking crew packed our belongings one August afternoon in Southern California until the two men with Cockney accents unpacked them here in Co Tipperary, carrying the crates across a muddy yard under a pewter-streaked sky. Rather than crossing an ocean, however, this time it’s only a ferry trip and onto a train or truck to travel into the heart of the Continent.

Time expands. We’ve been waiting nearly three months for confirmation of the job, anxiety all but paralysing us as we drifted through the winter days. I sat in the quiet of this comfortable, secure house watching the clouds rest on the heath-covered peaks of the Galtee Mountains to the north, thinking. The three years in this peaceful countryside – peaceful, not quiet, for tractors rumble by, sheep bawl, cattle low, and crows scold – stretch out indeterminately. From the light-filled windows of the bedroom, I see the undulating silhouette of the Knockmealdown Mountains to the south, calm and blue across the valley farmed for centuries by my husband’s forebears and those of our neighbours. (How many centuries? There is a 5,000-year-old burial cairn, a heap of stones piled as high and wide as a two-story house, standing in a field two pastures over.) Seasons change, light and colours shift, the days drift onward like the clear bog-brown water of the streams and rivers that wend their way through this green land.

Time contracts. I lie in the early morning dark, stomach suddenly clenched, remembering the August afternoon not even three years ago, shimmering heat distorting the blue mountains seen across another valley. Even after weeks of trying to plan, I stand paralysed, surrounded by a whirlwind of activity, as the removal men sweep away books, clothes, bedding – our houseful of belongings – and load them onto the truck. So much stuff! How much can we afford to take? What goes in the luggage, what goes in the container? What stays, relinquished with the finality of never coming back? (The men, eager to get away that Friday afternoon, work faster than I can think. And then, after they’d driven off – Where are the passports? They were right here, on this shelf, the shelf – and I see, as from a distance, the gesture, my arm flung back as I indicate the shelf – ‘All this goes.’)

It will be like that very soon. Only a day after we contacted the estate agent about renting this house, he showed it to a prospective tenant, even in this slow market. How soon will it be available, he asks. Kathleen, the agent in charge of shipping, wants to know when she can schedule the survey of the house, or, more precisely, of the items to be shipped. How can we say when we haven’t even an idea of what size apartment we’ll be able to afford? This day next week we’ll fly to Salzburg so Himself can formally begin work and we can look at apartments. Only then will we begin to know how much space we may have.

Then we’ll come back to the questions. What goes? What stays? What goes in the luggage, what goes by air freight, what goes in the container? As I move through the house now, my eyes light on small items, things I rarely notice – an ornament, a vase, my great-grandmother’s gift to my grandmother, the small strawberry-patterned plate that belonged to my mother, gifts of the long ago, memories. The shelves of books, read and unread. Densely written notebooks, set aside and unregarded. Dishes shipped six thousand miles, some not used since. So much stuff. Does any of it matter?

Time contracts, then expands. A week to wait, unable to move, until we leave. A week until I see Salzburg for the first time. A week of uncertainty, of watching the clouds snagged on the amber-and-violet covered peaks of the Galtees. What should I be doing while we wait out the week? Only a week. My stomach clenches. So much to organise. So little time to think, to say goodbye. I know I should be doing something.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Here Be Demons

Among the documents the Company sent over with my husband’s letter of understanding and the contract for his new job is one spelling out the flextime rules. It notes the standard work week in Austria (38.5 hours), the range of hours within which one can choose to be in the office each day, the core hours during which one is required to be in work, and many more arcane details regarding overtime, time credits and debts, and the recording of time worked.

Legally required, I imagine, in its specificity it’s a far cry from anything you’d get from an Irish employer. Moreover, it would have been unheard of in my American jobs, where the standard work week at the professional level could be defined by ‘How many hours does God send.’

I pointed this out to Himself. ‘It’s for the good,’ he said. ‘Everything is clear, understood.’

So. Things will be different when we move to Austria.

I’ve been anticipating this, to be sure. I’m told to expect order, the assumption that one adheres precisely to the rules and stated procedures, very different from the slapdash Irish approach to life, where cutting corners or taking one’s own time is routine. I don’t imagine I’ll find hastily scrawled ‘Back in 2 minutes’ signs on many shop doors in Salzburg.

Himself says this adherence to order will suit my temperament. ‘You like to have things spelled out so you know what to expect.’

He’s right, of course. I’m not by nature orderly in my habits, and my housekeeping is inconsistent, but it soothes my anxiety to know how things are done and when something will happen, and in what order, as if the world could be contained by checklist. It’s a fiction, of course, but it serves as notional boundary between the known world and the great white blank beyond the border, where demons dwell.