Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Last week’s snow still piles the sides of the street and blankets the wide fields behind our house. It lies in jagged heaps on the frozen fishing pond seen through the houses across the way. The wood to our side is a tangle of grey-brown trucks and muted dark foliage screening a white floor. From my window, every so often I glimpse brighter colours as walkers crunch along the path through its trees. Under a pewter sky, the bright colours moving in the gloom catch one’s eye.

It’s been very cold, not rising above -1 C in the daytime and dropping much lower overnight. Bundled up in heavy coat with a scarf wound high and tight, I ventured out on my bike last week and again yesterday, rolling very slowly over the slick patches along the path by the river, wary lest the front tyre should suddenly fly from under me. Especially treacherous is the incline at the top of our street where several householders neglect to shovel their share of the street. The ice there accumulates inches deep. Even with gravel strewn over it, I couldn’t trust it. I dismounted and pushed the bike the 10 metres or so, worried in the event for my footing.

In these cold and frequently dark days, I’ve been considering the species of lassitude to which I’ve too often succumbed. Some time back I stumbled across a word, velleity, defined as the lowest degree of volition, a slight wish or tendency of mild degree, a ‘wish too slight to lead to action’. I copied out the definition because it seems a nearly perfect description of my own level of volition at times like this. This frozen winter seems to, at times, reduce my motivation to that level of personal agency.

And, more recently, I followed a link from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, to a commentary by Sam Rocha at Vox-Nova, in which he writes of boredom he suspects drives some of our frequently aimless ramblings through the rooms, corridors and antechambers of internet blogs and news sites.

‘I ask,’ Rocha writes, ‘(myself first and foremost): What is boredom but loneliness, alienation, lovelessness, and the desire for something to occupy the time in a way that puts those stark realities at a distance? What is boredom but not quite feeling at home in the place you are?’

Too often, I, your Spy, fumble around in this narrow small room of this blog, writing in spurts, at times with enthusiasm, delighted with the spectacle that surrounds me, at other times more halting and introspectively. Does the rise and fall in my volition — the attacks of lassitude or velleity — relate to the sense that sometimes I am not entirely at home in the place where I am?

It’s all very exciting to discover another way of living and to learn, however poorly, a new language. But there are days when I’m not entirely sure who I am. I wander the city, eyes wide with fascination at its beauties, but then resent being mistaken for a visitor. Someone stops me to ask directions, and I fumble, pointing and trying to find the words, and another passerby stops to intervene and delivers them in fluent German.

‘You can tell them you don’t know,’ Himself gently reminds me.

But I want to be able to help, long to show even simple competency. Being reduced to child-like inability to give directions, to communicate on the most fundamental level, challenges my sense of who I am.

This is not to suggest I want to leave Salzburg. Though I  felt a wave of homesickness looking at pictures of Tipperary in a calendar sent by my sister-in-law, I doubt at this point I would feel more at home in Ireland. Nor do I have the slightest desire to return the United States. No, what is required is continuing work — to learn German, to make a discipline of writing, here and elsewhere, to explore Austria and Salzburg to make the less familiar more familiar.

In fact, every so often, while riding the bus or waiting in the physical therapist’s office, an extraordinary feeling of well being comes over me. It is a sense that combines warmth and peace with something like the comfort of a maternal embrace. I look up a the pale light coming in a window and feel, suddenly, at home.

I mentioned it to Himself, who tells me he’s experienced the same sensation. There’s no way for us to know, at this point, how long we will have the chance to make our home here, but we’d like to think it will be for a long time.

Occasionally another expat American will tell me that Salzburg is a bit parochial or that there is a kind of snobbishness in some elements of life. For the time being, though, it is big enough so that the former hasn't struck us, and, in our ignorance, we are shielded from the latter.

What’s more, we are very very lucky in our neighbours here on Katzenstraße. Edith and Hannes, Sigrid and Gerald and their daughter joined us for dinner here on Saturday. After spaghetti and salad, we sat with our wine and schnapps listening to music and talking — switching from English to German and back — late into the night. Their warmth and acceptance has given us a social life we would not otherwise enjoy. The field, the pond and the wood may be frozen, but inside the radiators strum, tick and pump out warmth.

It’s good to be at home, here in the wood-panelled flat, at the end of Katzenstraße.

No comments:

Post a Comment