Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Year On

It’s snowing in Salzburg this morning, a rapid fall of small bead-like flakes. It’s gone quite cold again, minus four or five by the downstairs thermometer. For the first time in a month, I shovelled snow yesterday morning. I was out again today.

Now I watch as tits and nuthatches swing from the bundles of peanuts suspended over the veranda. Waiting for their turn at the food, they flutter high into the underside of the roof and perch on the edge of window sills. Blackbirds pick at the seeds on the balustrade ledge. I think I even spotted a robin a few minutes ago. These birds have become as familiar as those I watched from my window in Ireland.

I note this particularly because yesterday marked a year since I first saw Salzburg. It is a year since my husband began his job here. It’s been a remarkable time in which I’ve had to learn a different aesthetic and cultural vocabulary. How strange the architecture and landscape seemed when we first arrived. I could see beauty in it, but it was an foreign, even austere, beauty after the mist-softened grey stone and green of Ireland.

I’ve learned in this time a chastening kind of humility that arises from the inability to communicate about the simplest human transactions. In fact, I’ve learned more humility than I have German.

I gained far more respect and admiration for those immigrants who leave all behind to make new lives in foreign lands with far fewer resources than I have. Hard as it is for me, at least we arrived with a secure job, were given assistance through the bureaucracy and were eased by the reality that English is the lingua franca in Europe and much of the world. I can’t imagine how isolated and frustrated I would be were it not for that.

I’ve learned to navigate the buses with some ease. In that too, I’ve been lucky, because Salzburg has a very reliable, efficient and accessible bus system. Each stop is announced in advance and shown on a display. I just have to know the name of my stop, and I’m fine. In Rome, for instance, stops are neither displayed nor announced, resulting in anxiety and missed stops. Nor were the buses as regular or predictable as they are here. I can get where I need to go within just a few minutes of my appointment times.

I’ve discovered also that it’s easy enough to get around on the bicycle. I had been used to a bike being a piece of recreational equipment for which I dressed in sportswear. I’ve gotten used to seeing woman biking in skirts and heels, men biking in suits. In winter’s cold, now I can bike very well, thank you very much, wearing my long down coat, hat and gloves.

I’ve had to navigate supermarkets with the unfamiliar mingled with the familiar. How do you find evaporated milk for meatloaf if you can’t name it in German to the kid stocking the shelves? The closest equivalent, I’ve found, is bottled ‘Kaffee Milch’. And bread crumbs? Describing it as ‘cut up bread’ got me to the bread cubes, which, as it happened, were next to the bread crumbs.

There is a wider selection of products available here than in Ireland, but this abundance itself is bewildering. How do I choose from among the displays of twenty or more wurst, for instance, each with its name and description in German? I just plunge in and choose, pointing and gesturing when I have to.

There are so many ordinary things like this we’ve had to learn to negotiate: Road signs, doctors’ offices and health insurance, going to the hairdresser, paying bills online through interfaces that shift, apparently randomly, between German and English. I can’t just write a cheque, because all transactions here are handled electronically: There are no cheques. That was another thing I had to discover.

Some of these difficulties I’ve learned to manage with grace; with others, I was forced to practice keeping my frustration in check. Which is a learning experience in itself.

And, of course, I’ve learned to shovel snow.


  1. Reminds me of our time in Prague...
    I can well remember standing in a Czech supermarket trying to figure out the cleaning supplies and not being able to ask for help. Everything looked different, had a different name. It's like learning to communicate all over, like being struck numb and illiterate at the same time; fascinating, an almost kafkaesque experience.
    Things got better as I took Czech lessons, immersed in the language for four hours a week with a private tutor who knew neither German nor English. By the time we left, after two and a half years, I could speak Czech quite well.
    Hang in there, Lorraine!

  2. It will come with time and practice, I'm sure. Thanks for your encouragement!