Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Föhn Wind

Los Angeles has its Santa Ana winds, Salzburg has the Föhn. These dry, warm winds, an effect of rain clouds massing at the tops of the Alps and forcing dry air down the far side, are credited with creating tension, even psychosis, just as the Santa Ana winds are in Southern California.

I can’t say that yesterday’s Föhn winds had an unsettling effect on me. It was a clear day, cold in fact. The sharp winds had that chill razor edge that Angelinos also recognise when the Santa Anas blow in winter. Here, they whipped the two loads of laundry on the line dry in a matter of a couple of hours, tossing towels and shirts backwards so they lay outstretched on the spinner. Leaves blown sideways tapped sharply on the windows; sycamore pods spun overhead like helicopters. Birds struggled from tree to bush.

The winds vigorously ruffled the surface of the fishing pond as I passed it on my walk. All the way to the Spitz along the bank of the Saalach, I walked through a litter of bronzed oak and beech leaves while more swirled around me, blown from the trees. The turquoise blue water to my left foamed over rocks, turbulent and fast. At the Spitz, I watched it pour into the wider waters of the Salzach, which, at the point of confluence, were more placid as they flowed north.

According the literature, I should have felt tension, unease. In fact, I felt productive and more focussed than I’ve been lately. Ideas swirled, sentences swept into mind, words frothed surfaceward. It was only late in the day when I spoke with my friend Edith that I put a name to the winds.

‘Föhn,’ she said. ‘They give some people headaches. Or worse.’

Much later, I awoke in the night and stood briefly at the window looking southeast. Hundreds of crystalline stars pierces the sky’s black expanse. I could pick out Orion and his belt among the multitude: More than that I did not try. Instead I returned to bed, thinking as I burrowed into the down, ‘It’s so clear, it must be freezing.’

This morning, though, as I write, the grey light is filtered behind the high, streaked clouds that come with the Föhn. The curve of the moon, as slender as a sigh, breaks through their grey gauze, its frail bow incandescent against the pale silver light. Around me, all is calm.

But I feel the skin across my nose tighten; my hands feel dry and taut. It will be another day of Föhn winds today.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


One of the recurring themes in this blog is my awareness of shame in social situations. I’ve written of the humiliation of falling off my bike into the mud, of faltering attempts to make conversations with strangers, attempts that were not well received, of seeing someone publicly chastise a couple of young boys, and, repeatedly, my failures in learning and speaking German.

There are many more revelations I’ve made that should—that do—invoke in me, when I consider what I’ve written. I feel shame, that shrivelling warmth, that intense heat-induced drawing up within the gut similar to the effect of putting a flame to flimsy cellophane.

This is conscious. I don’t seek humiliation, but I find shame interesting and important to consider. I’m one of those recovering-from-stuntedness individuals who finds it necessary to make conscious choices about my feeling states, choices that others seem to find natural. I work to control my emotional reactions in order to remain sane or at least not to whirl off the edge of the spinning universe into the void.

To keep from spiralling out of control when I hit problems and frustrations, I find it helpful to be aware of the effect of shame on my reactions. Rather than trying to push away the awful feelings—and shame really is a black, burning writhing—I try to say to myself, ‘Yes, this is shame. It makes me feel as though I’m too stupid, foolish, ridiculous to live. But somehow we’ll manage to hang on and survive it.’

That self talk, the deliberate recognition of the shame I’m immersed in, is my strategy to keep from reacting with more self-defeating behaviours. Which is what happens to many when the trauma of feeling shame leads people to stuff the awful sense of failure or project it onto others or to react violently. Or any number of ways we use to avoid the slow intense withering of self regard.

And so I end up exploring the experiences here. On the most basic level, I suppose, it’s the writer in me looking something to write about. On another level, creating a narrative helps me make sense of the experience. And, ultimately, I believe that the acknowledgement of our common frailties strengthens the connections that unite us. Which seems to me to be one of the functions of writing. (I’ll leave it to another time to address this circular logic.)

I raise these issues today because of a small incident last week. I was working on deadline, trying to finish a project proposal, when an email from our Robert, our landlord, came in. He was scheduling the delivery of heating oil for the winter. And he had, very kindly, written the email in German.

I say kindly, because we are making progress, albeit slow, in German. I can now have basic conversations—over the phone, in restaurants and shops, with receptionists—entirely in German. These are simple conversations, of course, and faltering on my part, but I consider it an honour when the other party respects me enough to continue in German when, frequently, it would be as easy for them to switch to English. ‘Ich muss üben’, I tell them if they offer to continue in English—I must practice.

Robert’s English is excellent. In fact, he and his family have recently returned from New Zealand, where they spent a year working and going to school. So I saw his German email as a respectful gesture to allow me to practice. But, as I say, I was on a deadline. Nor could I, as I tried to reply in German, remember the spelling of the most basic words, words I should know.

I sent off a hasty answer, poorly spelled, and he replied with small corrections, reminding me of a forgotten Umlaut, suggesting a better way to put a clumsy construction. His tone was playful, almost teasing, and I appreciated what he meant to do.

All the same, I wanted to cry with frustration. The message was so simple, and still I couldn’t do it right. I had hesitated before leaving off the Umlaut, but I was too rushed to look it up. What would have been the simplest note in English dashed off without thinking because was a time-consuming chore in German. I couldn’t engage in with a playful tone because I could barely engage even grammatically.

And I thought again about shame. I felt the loss of dignity in being reduced to child-like communications, poorly spelled, words ill chosen, when I am so fluent and confident in English. I thought too of how the posts about shame have to do, one way or another, with the loss of dignity, real or imagined.

We long for dignity in life, that sense of personal integrity that comprises autonomy, competence and self regard. We feel the sting of its loss when our wholeness is revealed as defective. Yet in moving forward, in trying to progress, even going out the door to meet the world, we risk it loss. 

Some of us are more absurdly invested in preserving it than others. I probably fall roughly in the middle of the continuum, having through my own actions and those of others been robbed of dignity many times and yet survived to feel the shame, perhaps even growing stronger for having done so. The humiliation and frustration of finding myself as inarticulate as a child is another exercise in feeling life’s indignities and carrying on. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Drawing In

As I wrote here last week, the golden days of our Indian summer have ended. Himself is still able to ride the ebike to work, but he departs under skies heavy with ambiguity. Will it rain? The forecast says no or unlikely, but the dark horizon offers no assurance.

Yet yesterday, the threat evaporated and the opaque grey sky gradually, meekly, surrendered. White valleys opened in the sky, vivid yellow light illuminated the golds and greens of the fading foliage in the wood, and, at last, clear blue shone overhead. Sometime after lunch, our friend and neighbour, Edith, suggested a walk.

The two of us strode the perimeter of the fishing pond, its brown surface reflecting the tops of the trees that surround it and the sky above.

‘No swans,’ I said. ‘Last week there was a swan in the morning, at least for a couple of hours.’

‘Yes,’ said Edith. ‘They come for a short time in the spring, then in the fall, then go away.’

I agreed, recalling the swans on the pond when we were first considering the flat on Katzenstraße. ‘They never seem to stay during the summer.’

Under the sun, it was soon warm enough to take off our sweaters. I worked my trekking poles, trying to hold them loosely and keep an even pace. We followed the path past the community allotments and the football pitch, then turned right to walk along the bank of the Saalach as it runs northwest, forming the border between Germany and Austria. It had rained heavily over the weekend, so the river ran wide and more turbulent than usual, its high waters the colour of milk chocolate.

The trees lining the bank were thick, so shade dappled the path. It was littered with bronze scalloped oak leaves and pointed acorns with round caps. But only a few; most still clung to the trees.

At the Spitz, that arrow-shaped point of land at the confluence of the rivers Saalach and Salzach, we stopped to watch the rushing waters, the wider, deeper waters of the Salzach subsuming the smaller Saalach as the mingled waters poured north. Then, turning south along the Salzach, we could see the sun through the interstices of thick leaves, its light lemony but low.

‘We should plan to walk most days at 2,’ Edith suggested. ‘It’s the best light of the day.’

I worried about walking in the snow, which will come soon. I started out one day early last winter, nearly slipped on the ice, and turned back. It was the end of my walks last year.

She reassured me. ‘It’s better after the early snows. You get used to it.’

I lifted by trekking poles and pointed to the rubber tips. They come off to unsheathe a point, like that of a ski pole. ‘And I’ll wear better boots, too, my hiking boots with lugs.’

We were back to the pond by now. Near the shore, small black waterfowl clustered.

‘In German, they’re called Blässhuhner,’ Edith said. ‘Like hens, only with the white mark,’ she said, pointing to her face.

‘It’s nicer than the name we called them in America. Coots.’

‘Funny,’ I added. ‘I didn’t see them all summer.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘They stay hidden then and come out in the fall.’

I didn’t ask why. I only thought how, in the eighteen months we’ve lived on Katzenstraße, I’ve come to know the rhythms of its seasons: The twittering small birds in the winter eating the seed I put out, the swans skirting the ice in the spring thaw, the blackbirds’ song and the croaking of frogs booming in the lengthening evenings of later spring, the swooping bats in the warmth of summer twilight, and now, the new gathering of small birds building flitting under the eaves, swans on the pond again, and Blässhuhner in the fading days of fall.

Today’s promised sun and warm never materialised. Outside my window, a rush of leaves whirl down, spinning on the wind. Tomorrow rain is forecast; the next day will be sunny but cold, dipping down toward zero. Evenings draw in, as the light fades quickly under the full harvest moon.

Last night, at the end of a mild, not cold, day, I barbecued the last of the chicken on the bone, working by porch light. Along side the grilling chicken, I put an acorn squash, the deep green ovoid split length-ways. It came out delicious, with a smoky deep sweet-savoury flavour I’d nearly forgotten, the taste of fall.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Symbolic Adjustment

Among the countless unanticipated, small but inescapable, adjustments we’ve encountered since moving from California to Ireland and then to Austria are the variations in computer keyboards. Language, alphabet, currency and business protocols vary from country to country, so some frequently used symbols hide on different keys, depending on the region.

On U.S. keyboards, @ is on the 2 key; on English/Irish keyboards, it is just right of the right-hand little finger, where in the U.S. the double quotes reside. German keyboards, with Umlauts and Scharfes S—the ß representing a double S, also called an Eszett—are even more dissimilar from U.S. keyboards. Especially bambooyling, the positions of the Y and Z keys are switched, so one maz find oneself hitting the correct kezs but tzping biyarre words.

Add to this my deliberate adaption of British spellings and editing conventions in place of American ones, on the principle that our move to Ireland was a permanent move that requires respect of local customs, and the problems multiplied.

Through these transitions I’ve used, mainly, a desktop computer brought from the U.S., with its American-configured keyboard and U.S.-centric software. After some frustrating experiments, I was able to change Microsoft’s spell check to U.K. spelling. It took longer to persuade Office Outlook that it had, indeed, crossed the Atlantic forever. Only very recently did I discover how to change the whole system to these latitudes; now my desktop calendar reads 09.10.2011 rather than 10/9/2011.

So I’ve been writing these four years constantly adjusting to the conventions of two, even three, worlds, mentally switching between them as needed. It got more complicated, though, when I acquired a used laptop built for the German-speaking market. I changed its settings to an English keyboard, getting around the Y to Z confusion. But because it lacks the number keypad to the right of the keyboard, I couldn’t manage ASCII codes I use to write Umlauts and Scharfes S.

At last, though, we’ve discovered how to set up both computers so I can toggle between keyboards simply. Now, just by clicking an icon, I can switch between English-U.S., English-U.K. and Deutsch-Austria keyboards and spellings.

If only all adjustments to life in another country were so straightforward.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Turning

We’ve had the warmest autumn here in 20 years. So says the Salzburger Nachrichten, the local newspaper. I can’t read German well enough to get all the details, impatient as I am, but I can work out the headlines and essentials in the first few lines, which now show up on my Google news feed. Which is progress in itself.

However, I didn’t need the paper to tell me about the weather. Here on Katzenstraße, we’ve been celebrating the glorious, warm fall days for over two weeks now. The sky has been luxuriantly blue, the green wood to our side gently, only gradually, bronzing, and temperatures in the 20s from mid-morning to late afternoon.

A week ago we had visitors from Los Angeles. We took them to Rupertikirtag, Salzburg’s week-long fall festival in honour of its patron, and to Hangar 7, the museum housing the personal collection of cars, motorbikes and airplanes owned by the entrepreneur behind Red Bull energy drink. On both days, we basked in sunshine that was hot but lacking summer’s sting. We breakfasted here on the veranda, sun warming our bare feet and slanting into our eyes.

The cats of Katzenstraße are enjoying  the sunshine too. Up the street, the fat pink Persian, lazy and incurious, lies atop a pier, from which she stares at me as I pass on my bicycle. Lisa, the street’s young princess, deprived of her chaise lounge by an inconsiderate human, dozes under a tomato bush. Jimmy, at 19 years the old man of the street, prefers the hood of a car, its metal and glass surfaces intensifying the heat.

Below my window, in the garden at the edge of the wood, quinces shine gold-green. We took advantage of Sunday afternoon’s heat—dressed in shorts and sleeveless shirts—to harvest some of the sweet-sour fruits. Himself will take them to a work colleague who, with his wife, will make jelly or wine or somehow use them. As it was, we plucked less than half; many more remain high in the tree, unreachable from our unsteady ladder. I see the lithe body of a squirrel as it climbs, undulating, through the green-clad limbs, taking advantage of our profligacy to fatten himself for the winter. A russet apple hangs from a branch of an old tree, far, far above our reach, more bounty for the squirrel.

The blackbirds too are feasting on fruit we’ve neglected. They rustle invisibly in the grapevines that droop from the trellis at the back of the house, flitting in among the leaves to feed on the not-quite-sweet hanging grapes. Lying awake in morning’s half light, I hear them through the open window, their song just about to begin. When I bring my laden laundry basket to the nearby clothesline, they murmur with alarm at my proximity, then flutter away.

But the wash I’ve hung out this morning may be the year’s last. Even through these clear warm days, the nights have already begun to chill. The wind, when it blows, brings a shower of leaves as thick as snow. Small yellow, white and black tits explore the interstices between the roof and the rain gutters, looking for secure dry spaces. From nearly every eave hang webs, thick with spiders’ late harvest.

We have turned a corner, as Himself remarked this morning. Last night I watched from the window as the day faded. Milky pink light washed the sky above the blue silhouette of Gaisberg, one of Salzburg’s peaks. Its landscape was lost behind a veil of mist. Today the sky has faded; the light is silvered. The laundry on the line hangs limp and still. The sharp-edged shadows of yesterday have disappeared; light washes the walls inconsistently.

I awoke this morning just before six to a black sky scattered with a few clear stars. It was past seven before I saw the rose-pink light fill the scooped-out silhouette of the mountains on the horizon. An hour later, I caught sight of a single swan on the fishing pond across the way, its reflection glinting startlingly white in brown surface. Even its brightness seemed to emphasise the change. When I first saw the pond, two swans swam in murky waters between the thawing winter ice. The swans do not sail its waters in summer. 

I've given up the idea mowing the grass now. There’s little point. They tell us rain and dramatically lower temperatures are coming in two days’ time. And after that, what? Will we get an early snow or more bright clear days?

I can’t say, but I feel the time slipping away.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hello, Stranger

My recent post about interfering with the Australian family’s bus trip one sodden August afternoon has led me to think, naturally, about my impulse to put myself forward to strangers I meet when I’m out and about. I’ve written here previously about an abortive conversation at a bus stop not long after we moved to Salzburg. There was another awkward encounter shortly after I first arrived in Ireland. I’ve also noticed my impulse to make eye contact, or the need to resist doing so, on the streets or in shops.

In fact, much of this is culturally as well as temperamentally determined. Preparing to move to Austria, I read that the custom here is not to make eye contact or greet people on the street, at least in the normal course of things. And I’ve found this to be true, in general, though occasionally, passing someone in the quiet streets around Katzenstraße, one may exchange a quiet Grüß Gott. Or not. (However, we’ve found when climbing mountain paths, the impulse to exchange greetings, even using the familiar pronoun euch, kicks in. It has to do, we suppose, with the fellowship of outdoors adventures.)

It’s taken some time for me to come to terms with this. It may seem familiar, even rude, to those I meet in shops or on the streets here, but I have trouble not looking into others’ faces, even making eye contact, which, it seems to me, then demands a nod, an acknowledgment, a simple greeting. So I discipline myself.

Bicycling, for example, I approach an oncoming cyclist and I feel my head nearly irresistibly swivel in her direction. My eyes want to slither sideways in their sockets. 'Just a peek!', my instincts cry. I fight the urge, keep my face forward, eyes focussed ahead, and we pass, ignoring one another. Why? It seems a matter of privacy.

As I said, in large part, it’s cultural. In Irish country towns, not only do people greet or acknowledge others on the streets, drivers along country roads lift from the steering wheel, with a certain studied nonchalance, the fingers of one hand in acknowledgment of passing cars. Walkers along the roads stare openly at those in cars that pass. Himself teases me because in our time in the house in Tipperary, I developed the habit of rushing to the window to watch each car that went by. One can’t help but greet others in these circumstances, especially when one is likely to know—even to be related to—most of those one meets.

In America, of course, depending on the city or region, there’s even more openness to strangers. In Ireland, though one may acknowledge others met on the streets, there remains a certain reserve—you could even call it caginess—about how much one reveals in these encounters. Not so in America: There it is common for people thrown into proximity with strangers to share a great deal of information about one’s life, one’s history, or one’s circumstances. Looking back, I’m now astonished at my own past revelations to strangers or near-strangers.

There are historical and cultural reasons for this, certainly. The vastness of unexplored land, the need for strangers to work together to build lives in frontier territories, isolation and loneliness, or perhaps idealism growing out of the American experiment, all combined to turn frankness, sharing of information and trust of others into American virtues. And American are appreciated, I think, for their open friendliness, informality and willingness to make human connections when they travel.

All the same, with some time and distance between America and my current life, I see the American propensity for expedited intimacy and the very desire to form those connections through a different lens. Like looking in the mirror and seeing a self not quite as remembered, I wonder some days just who I am. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

The New Bike

Salzburg is a bike-friendly city, with wide paved paths on both sides of the river that runs through its middle. These paths make it easy and practical to cycle to the city’s centre and well beyond. My husband’s office is also on the river’s edge, so the path runs right next to it. However, it’s about 15 or 20 kilometres south of our flat, so he’s been commuting by car over the autobahn for the past 19 months.

That’s changed now, because, after thinking about it for the past year, we finally bought an e-bike. This is an ordinary pedal bike with a rechargeable battery attached. Though the rider must continually pedal the bike, the battery gives it a boost, upping the speed and reducing fatigue. It’s particularly great on inclines, powering you up hills with little effort. Set at the highest of its three power levels, it gives you a zippy cycle.

So Himself now rises about an hour earlier each morning and bicycles to work. It takes him about 45 minutes, perhaps twice as long as it would by car, but it’s good exercise. The weather’s been extraordinary for the past two weeks—warm and sunny, clear and mellow in Autumn’s unique fashiongiving him another reason to enjoy the trip.

I stood at the window as he left this morning, watching. The low-lying sun shone brightly, but the houses cast long early-morning shadows over the street. Across the way, mists rose from the fishing pond. I held my cup of coffee, waiting for the bang of the garage door. Then he emerged from the shadow of the house and wheeled onto the street, his laptop secure in the backpack clasped over his black windbreaker. Off he went, sunlight briefly flashing on the black of his helmet before winking off as he rode again into shadow and then out of my sight.

He looked, I thought, completely European, off to join the many sensible and confident cyclists on their way to the office. Gute Fahrt!