Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Late last week the weather turned spring-like here, the days warm and bright, soft air drifting in through open windows. It reached about 18 or 19 C yesterday, too warm for the wool sweaters that are all I brought with me. The mountain that’s closest to us, seen through the windows of our hotel room, is green, its snow entirely melted. The towering alp to the northeast though, the other side of which we saw as we drove from Munich, still rises white against the blue sky.

The close mountain is about as tall, relative to our position, as Galteemore, the tallest of the peaks in the Galtee Mountains, as seen from our windows in South Tipperary. The summits of the Galtees, though, were stripped of their forests millennia ago, cleared for cultivation, and through erosion became, over time, boggy heath land. The mountain seen from the windows here in Salzburg are still forested at its summit, deep pine green and faded brown conifers in the early spring. Here and there, halfway down, are large grassy clearings with isolated buildings. The clearings are steep, steep as those in the wild Connemara mountains in the west of Ireland, where highland sheep graze on spindly black legs in nearly vertical pastures.

I see no sheep on this mountain, only the occasional flash as the sun glances off a passing car on a road not visible from here. I will miss the now-familiar green meadows when we move this weekend to our flat by the wood. The mountains are more distant there.

I’ve been struggling with how to describe Salzburg and the surrounding Bavarian countryside. What does it look like? Why or how is it different from Ireland? Or the Mediterranean landscape of Southern California, also split by mountains? I’ve compared Salzburg’s mountains to the Wasatch in Salt Lake City, but they’re similar only to a point.

The landscape and the architectural aesthetic is so different from these that it’s as though I have no words, or am only now beginning to find the words, to write about it. Away from its historic centre, Salzburg is not particularly remarkable. Its buildings are low – no office or tall apartment blocks here – a bit blockish and fairly modern. Parks and green space are plentiful, and many are dotted with schlosses – grand houses of the past. A long narrow park with a path through it is lined with these schlosses, set far apart. Along the river opposite the Altstadt, a 10 or 15 or more large, square-but-gracious-looking pastel-painted schlosses sit side by side.

The river, the Salzach, is wide and shallow, at least where I’ve peered into it. Its waters flow north in gentle ruffles and are pale, pastel green-blue, through which I can see stones on a sandy bottom as through pale blue glass. It’s very different from the deep bog-brown smooth-flowing River Suir that runs through Cahir, rising fish glinting in the late sun of a summer evening. Thickly leaved horse chestnuts and beeches clustered on its banks are reflected on its mirror-like impenetrable surface. The rocky banks of the Salzach, by contrast, slope steeply down to the river and are nearly bare.

As a Californian, used to muted earth-toned and pastel buildings, I was impressed by the use of colour in Irish towns. Colour is even more evident in the cityscape of Salzburg. Buildings are painted deep, saturated and bold colours. Just from my window on one small neighbour, I see apartment buildings painted salmon, saffron, lemon yellow and rich sky blue. The white house across the way has a purple door and mailbox; even its chain link fence is painted purple. The office building next to it, also white, has window frames of magenta. The schlosses, as I mentioned, are pink, yellow, blue and gold. In the Altstadt and the surrounding distracts, rococo facades are also painted pastels with filigreed ornaments in contrasting colours.

In the country side, buildings are timbered, often with hipped roofs decorated open-work gingerbread shapes. Churches in country villages rise in tall, narrow austere blocks, with vertical thrusts of steeple attached on otherwise unornamented front walls. Many of the steeples bulge with onion-shaped bulbs just before their pinnacles. So unlike the stone churches of Ireland, they still startle me when I see their masculine silhouettes dominant in the landscape.

In memory, Ireland seemed comfortable and emotionally accessible from the first time I saw it. Although new to me, the landscape seemed natural, familiar to my psyche. Here, the landscape seems exotic, and though I once had the vocabulary of art and architecture, now I stumble, searching for words now lost to me. Like German, the landscape is not disagreeable; it’s just pushing me to find words to express meaning.


Monday I realised that, unusually, the Spring equinox had passed unremarked in this household, here in our comfortable hotel on the Alpenstrasse in Salzburg.

We drove to Munich on Sunday afternoon – that was the 21st, the day after the equinox – a nice one-and-a-half hour drive on a good motorway. In Salzburg, we’re so much in the Alps that we didn’t really see the Alps. So it wasn’t until we were driving back from Munich Sunday evening that they came into perspective. There they were, truly magnificent, rising stark and austere in front of us. One massive loaf-shaped mountain in particular seemed to block our path as we raced toward it, about 20 km outside of Salzburg. We could see a pass to one side of it and wondered if we’d go around it there. As it turned out, the road curved in the opposite direction, and we found ourselves skirting its up-thrusting mass on its other side. That’s when we realised that here, in Salzburg, we look at the other side of that specific mountain daily.

This was, of course, late in the afternoon after the day spent in Munich, to which we had been guided by Mavis, our ever-so-patient Mistress of the GPS. It had been about 35 years since I had been there, and my husband had never visited the city, despite having lived in Germany for a year and a half. So while I was foostering around the hotel room that morning, getting myself ready, he did a quick Google search for a specific destination to give Mavis. He picked Marienplatz, in the city centre, and Nymphenburg, a grand schloss with formal gardens not far from there, a former royal summer palace.

Just as Mavis brought us through the final web of narrow, confusing streets and left us in a car park, I heard bells chiming. It was noon, exactly, so that made sense. Then I realised we heard not ordinary bells but those of a glockenspiel, and some ghost of a memory about mechanical figures on a clock teased the back of my brain. We hurried in the direction of the music and came out in a large platz dominated by the enormous, late gothic Neues Rathaus with its towers, flying buttresses, statues and gargoyles. In front of it, Marienplatz was filled with people with heads bent back looking in the same direction. Looking up, we saw in the central tower a three-tiered recessed stage filled a tableau of life-sized figures. Brightly painted, they revolved in a slow dance as the entire group circled and the glockenspiel played, a festive beginning to our afternoon, possible through sheer dumb luck.

It was a cloudy, windy day, but not uncomfortable, an appropriately spring day with the sun breaking through and the shop fronts glittering with colour. Across from a museum of toys, two Cossacks busked, both of them singing as one played the accordion. One in particular, short and stout with a sweet round face like a boy's, had a beautiful tenor voice, and we stopped to listen. They wore black trousers with a broad red stripe down each leg, which disappeared into knee-high black boots. Their jackets were bright red. The flat crown on the accordion player’s hat was as wide as a large platter, and it rose up at a dramatic angle, like a steep roof. When I dropped a euro into their basket, we noticed they were selling CDs. Some of the CDs we’ve bought from buskers over the years have turned out to be perfect for putting on at parties – flamingo guitar bought in Barcelona, bright and sweet Guatemalan pan pipes, guitars and drums bought in downtown LA, perfect to play as guests have their first drinks – so we bought one. It turns out to be choral performances of traditional Russian and Cossack songs, with Schubert’s Ave Maria and a few Christmas carols mixed in. I don’t know how well it will do as a mood setter at parties, but it’s a souvenir.

Returing to the Marienplatz for some lunch, we noticed preparations for something. A knot of older women clustered around a large red-and-white display of artificial flowers with a Marian motto in its centre. An solemn, white-haired man supervised the setting up of wooden benches facing a small wooden podium set in front of the statue of Mary that gives the platz its name. Five men in traditional Bavarian costume edged together in a protected corner of two shop fronts, practicing tunes on brass instruments. I wandered over to a handbill taped to the makeshift stage. A procession in honour of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, Patroness of Bavaria (I think that’s what it said) was to begin at 14:00 and continue until about 16:00.

We were in luck for the second time that day.

Ironically, truly, for I couldn’t keep it from mind, was that this was the day the pope’s letter, in which he did not exactly apologise for the sexual predation of children by his priests, monks and nuns, or take responsibility on behalf of the church, was being read from pulpits across Ireland. Further, this was Munich, the seat of the archdiocese over which he had been bishop, during which time he failed to protect the children from abuse by a priest under his direct authority. It was only that morning I had read Andrew Sullivan’s blog about the history of forced resignations of popes – could it be possible that Benedict could be forced to resign?

The prayers began as we sat at an outdoor cafe finishing lunch. A small group of mostly elderly people sat on benches as an older man droned. A priest wearing a lacy surplice and purple stole hovered just behind the platform. The brass band played hymns and the congregates sang, well in fact. We could make out the air of Salve Regina among the songs. After a time, Himself finished his beer and I my wine, and we moved on, in search of the twin-towered church known as the Frauenkirche. I had never seen a procession, so I noted its route. It would not get underway for a while and when it did, I reasoned, we would find it along the way.

It turns out that the Frauenkirche is Munich’s cathedral, so inside were wooden choir stalls with the names of former bishops noted. There was also a brass relief sculpture of Benedict, honoured in the cathedral over which he formerly presided. These representations did nothing to incline me to consider him with more respect. In the circumstances, it reinforced the disconnect between what one might expect of spiritual compassion and the world of the church.

We continued exploring the street around the Rathaus and the cathedral, looking in shop windows and gaping at architecture, trying to identify impressive classical and baroque buildings with of our tourist map. There was a crowd gathered in front of one shop window, adults as well as children all but pressing noses against the pane. Inside glittered a row of jewel-like confections, egg-shaped and sparkling, studded with ripe raspberries, enameled with vivid clear colours – ruby, amesyth, emerald – or thickly coated chocolate so thick and glossy it was nearly black. A child inside, fortunate beyond my dreams, watched as a waitress slipped a deep pink-and-cream delight onto a plate.

Himself and I agreed, in the end, that the delight must lay in regarding, rather than tasting, their beauty. As were the many Easter delights that glittered in other shop windows everywhere we turned.

As we walked down one street, we began to hear a droning amplified male voice, followed by a deep muttered response. We walked toward it and soon the Marian procession came into sight. It was stopped in front a building with a small shrine set high in the wall above the door. A statue of Mary in her blue-and-white gown rose from the center of the red-and-white floral arrangement. The priest was leading the group in the rosary, which we recognised through its rhythm and the odd word here and there. Banners flapped in the wind. The brass band, stood to the side. As I watched, one of them nudged another, and the five musicians straightened up and stood close together, instruments in hand, for the benefit of a photographer. I studied them carefully, taking in their thick felt hats, loden jackets, knee-length lederhosen, thick socks and low, side-fastened shoes. Their instruments were a tuba, a euphonium, a French horn and two cornets, I think.

At last, the priest finished speaking and six men struggled to lift to their shoulders the statue mounted on its heavy bier. The brass band fell into place behind priest and statute, and the procession moved on. Many of the followers were old and hunched forward, drab in woollens, hands folded, penitent-like, in front. One man, nearly doubled over in a brown cloak, had a small dog on a lead with him. Not a few were pushed in wheelchairs. As they passed, a woman stopped in front of me and thrust a small silver-coloured medal at me. She said something, in a voice somewhere between insistent and wheedling, which of course I didn’t understand. I shook my head, ‘Nein, nein.’ She didn’t move, pressing me, holding the medal, cradled in both hands, close to my face. Irritated, I continued to shake my head. I don’t know about her offended me. Was it was my fear that she wanted something in return for the medal or my general irritation that she should try to draw me into her superstition? Which amounts to the same thing, in the end. She gave up at last, we walked on, and she followed the procession, the brass-borne hymns drifting in their wake.

We continued up the street the procession had come down, and they doubled back up the street we had come down, and not long after we crossed paths again, the red and white flowers bright in the sun, the brass band, the purple-clad priest and his dogged followers, numbering about 50. We entered the Marienplatz from one side of side of the Rathaus, they from another, and the procession was over.

Where the pilgrims went from there, I don’t know. After their afternoon, I hope they went to cheerful homes and had kaffee und kuchen at tables graced by bright yellow tulips.

We, however, drove on to the schloss at Nymphenburg and walked its gardens, admiring grey geese and swans in ponds. At last, we drove back along the good motorway, while Porches, BMWs and Audis swooshed by at amazing speeds, the Alps in front of us framing the lowering grey clouds as the sun set, daylight just slightly more abundant than night.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Leaving Tipperary, Ctd.

The night before I left Tipperary, just before the light faded, I left our by-now nearly empty house and walked along our road to Whitechurch, the long-derelict church – since before the dissolution of the monasteries – near the big tree. You can just make out the shape of the church under its covering of dense ivy, three high windows piercing the narrow eastern wall. The ivy is so thick that, unless you are looking, you might not see the church itself.

A battered iron gate, tied shut with a fraying blue nylon cord, slumps at the entrance to the churchyard. Just beyond the gate stands a tall iron crucifix peeling black paint, the corpus painted white. The ground rises and falls sharply, cluttered with abundant growth and tottering monuments, slabs falling forward and back at acute angles. Some of the oldest that can be read date from the 18th century; undoubtedly there are far older ones, their inscriptions now illegible. Others are recent, including one memorialising our dear friend Fr Tommy O’Connell, who died in 1999 and is buried in California, where he had been a parish priest for over 50 years. He grew up next to my father-in-law’s home place and had known both my husband’s parents for a lifetime.

There is one grave, though, that captures my imagination more than the others. Off in a corner, near the boundary with Murphy’s field and at the foot of a huge tree, is a tiny grave site, about a metre long and half metre wide, edged with kerbstones filled in with pebbles. The carved silhouette of an infant angel with praying hands sits above the inscription:

Brian Anthony Williams
sadly missed by
Mam Dad and Family

The grave was there when I first visited Whitechurch in 1988, the initial capitals of the inscription gaudily painted, the tiny grave covered with faded plastic flowers, a holy-water vial shaped like the Virgin, and a plastic globe containing an angel. When I visited it last week, it was still covered with offerings, many new, including a straw reindeer-shaped planter holding a small shrub, still green, apparently put there at Christmas.

Twenty-two years on – and how long before my first visit? – and Baby Brian Anthony Williams is still remembered in the tiny churchyard, surrounded by ancient graves and towering trees in the deep, quiet peace of Whitechurch.

I walked back along the quiet road, passed by only one or two cars, between hedges not yet showing the green of spring. They had recently been cut back hard, and broken spears of white ash branches littered the ground. Ash, even freshly cut, burns well, and I gathered an armload, carrying as much as I could manage, for one last fire in the house.

It had been a day even more chaotic and unpredictable than it might have been. The removal men – Michael, Pat, John and Paul – four gentle Cork men, with accents as impenetrable as the men themselves were charming, funny and sweet, had packed most of our belongings the day before, leaving out only those items as necessary for the final carton, specifically the teapot, five mugs and the kettle. Late that day, with most of the rooms dismantled, came word that the container would arrive around 11 am. It would take a couple of hours to load it, so I had planned to have the afternoon to run errands, including a trip to Clonmel, about 30 km. away, to drop off the recyclables and rubbish and, I hoped, to for a quick farewell to a friend, if we could arrange that.

But on the day itself, the container didn’t arrive at 11. It was delayed at the port. The three Cork men – the fourth having been sent on another assignment – began moving cartons outside, so they lined the yard inside our entrance on each side, two walls of cartons lining a non-existent drive. We stopped for lunch, and after lunch we waited still. I let my friend in Clonmel know I wouldn’t be able to give a definite time I could get away.

From the tiny station I’d established in the kitchen, I continued to try to organise what was left to be done – insurance to be cancelled, another policy to be put into place, banking, holding the mail, arranging to have it forwarded, looking for potential buyers of the car, all the while keeping the paperwork organised and sequestered from the movers. At last, rumbling outside let us know the container had arrived. But it was the wrong size. The foreman of the packing crew made phone calls; another one would have to be sent. That meant more waiting, putting into doubt when I could get away to Clonmel. After texting back and forth, my friend and I gave up the idea of meeting. The men, having moved as many cartons as could be moved, sat in the sun, reading their papers. We all agreed that with the cartons stacked in the yard and them having to wait with little to do, we were lucky in the fine, sunny day.

Then an email arrived from Agnes, the relocation specialist in Salzburg. If I wanted the flats painted in colours of my choosing, I would have to select the colours by midmorning the next day.

‘I told you about this before’, she wrote, impatience creeping through. Yes, I thought, but you only told us yesterday we had secured the flat. Can’t it wait until I get there in three days? I had colours in mind, but how was I to communicate them by email in the next 24 hours? Pale greenish taupe, not-quite-olive, not too yellow, not too bright? Creamy yellow, soft and warm?

Or we could leave it white, said Agnes.

White? With all those lovely crown mouldings and carved walnut panels? With our off-white couch? Leave it white?

Confusion mounted as visitors arrived to say goodbye. My mother-in-law’s dog ran in and out of the house. Young grandnieces and a grandnephew explored the empty house, full of wonder. My own anxiety about meeting the schedule, seeing things loaded, getting to Clonmel and back, expanded. Frustration at the thought of white walls, the compression of the day, everything that remained to be done, the interrupting phone calls and texts, squeezed like too-tight bandages round my gut.

At last, having loaded the bags of recycling and rubbish into the back of the car, I made a quick run into Clonmel, getting the most important things done. Stopping at a DIY centre for bird seed to leave with my mother-in-law, I snatched some paint chips for reference. Back home in just over an hour, I found the container had arrived and was nearly loaded. Even the kettle, teapot and five mugs had been packed and loaded. And now, having had soup and a sandwich fixed for me by my sister-in-law, and the light not entirely gone, I was able to relax in the walk, the last one for a while, up our quiet, familiar road.

Back at home, the sitting room empty save for borrowed pillows and my notebook computer, I build the last fire and poured a glass of wine into a borrowed glass. My few scraps of foraged ash burned soft and sweetly, adding to the calm. The sky deepened; late I watched the burnished deep blue-black rise above the blacker silhouette of the hedge.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Humbling might be the word to describe the feeling that arose when I tried to change the address on our New Yorker subscription. I realised I wasn’t sure of the address format to use. Is it city and postal code on the first address line and street address the line after, as it was on the information packet given us by the relocation specialist? Or was that just her way of presenting the material? Does the house number come after the street name or before it?

It probably doesn’t matter; I’m sure the post will get to us. But it’s symptomatic of the sometimes humiliating experience of not knowing, of being ignorant, in the bluntest term, of common expressions of social life, after a lifetime of natural competency in a common language.

This morning, for instance, I’m going to a place suggested by the hotel desk clerk to have my pale, nearly invisible, eyebrows shaped and tinted, as I do periodically. How will I convey my preference, for I’ve found that leaving it up to the judgement of the beautician yields disappointing results. (Perhaps I cling too stubbornly to the beauty standards of my youth.) If I’m lucky, she’ll be fairly fluent in English, but even so, the insecurity of not being to express with precision what I mean is disconcerting.

The other day I left some clothes to be cleaned. The woman at the desk had enough English, and the transaction was simple enough, that we got on well until she asked me to spell my name. My Irish surname – not Seal – is straightforward enough in English, but vowels are pronounced differently in other languages. ‘A’, I said, and she wrote ‘E’. We corrected that, then came an ‘E’. If ‘A’ is ‘E’, what is ‘E’? And ‘Y’, it turns out, is pronounced ‘Ipsilon’. I will have to carry a card with the name printed on it until I am able to spell in German. A simple solution, but again, the humiliation of not being able to spell one’s name!

It’s lonely, too, not being able to pass remarks with those around me. At breakfast yesterday, my husband having left for work, the cheerful waitress patted my shoulder as she passed, seeing, I suppose, something pass over my face when he’d gone. She’s unfailingly kind and welcoming, but she speaks no more English than I do German. Conversations swirled around me in the breakfast room; I sat as an island, mute. It was St Patrick’s Day, and I wore a shamrock. I showed it to her, but she nodded without comprehension. I couldn’t find any word or other way to explain its significance. (Salzburg is not like America is this respect: as far as wearing green, the day seemed like any other. Only in the Irish pub we went to in the evening was the occasions observed.)

I enter shops, and people greet me with the traditional, ‘Grüss Gott’, which I return. Then comes a flood of words, inquiries and offers of help, to which I can only shake my head. On buses, women turn to me and begin conversations. Alone as I am much of the day, I would willingly engage with them, but I can only respond, ‘I don’t speak German’. (Soon I hope to be able to say it auf Deutsch. ‘Ich habe nicht Deutsch,’ perhaps. Or is it, ‘Ich nicht Deutsch habe’? I’m guessing here.) There’s surreal quality to the experience, as I am addressed with friendliness in a language I don’t understand, like watching someone mouth words from behind a window.

It’s not that I’m not getting by. I am, with comfort. Most people do speak at least a smattering of English, many with fluency. I’m cossetted in pleasant hotel, and I’ve learned to get around on the bus. (Yesterday though, on foot, I got lost, but that’s another story.) People are helpful and very kind; I feel very lucky. There’s an element of wonder or awe, even, at being unable to read signs or understand apparently simple questions. Language, the element I’ve always been most at home with, is nearly opaque; conversations around me become white noise, easy to ignore. It’s on a par with living in a hotel, with few responsibilities for the present, as though I’m on a desert island, observing, waiting, resting. But there are those moments of frustration, as when I couldn’t tell the waiter to give me ten and keep the rest, because I don’t even know the numbers past four, and two, three and four are shaky at that. I stand on the shore of my island, contemplating the vastness around me, knowing soon I must soon dive in.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Snow in the Altstadt

It’s been snowing in Salzburg for a couple of weeks now. The Sunday he was here on his own, while I was still in Tipperary, my husband explored the large park across from the hotel, sending pictures of an acres-wide expanse of unblemished white ringed by dark-green trees. I’d hoped I’d be able to see it myself, and, sure enough, the mountain just beyond our window is spread white between grey-green trees. It looks as if one could ski down its face. It snowed all afternoon Saturday, and we sat watching from the expanse of windows in the wide, empty common area outside our room as it fell on the street and passing cars and car park and window ledge. But it’s warm enough that the flakes dissolved, building leaving only a few inches of white covering roofs and ground.

The hotel into which we’re settled, for the short term, is a pleasant one on the Alpenstrasse with a bright, colourful interior. It’s not far from my husband’s office, to which he commutes in a rented car. Buses toward the city centre pass every five minutes, stopping at the corner next to the hotel, more convenient, I’d say, than driving. Yesterday after writing in the morning, I did some errands for my husband, including taking the bus to a shoe shop I’d discovered, just a few stops along, to pick him up new shoes, his attention these days being focussed on coming up to speed at work. Then, on a whim, thinking to see the snow fall on the Dom and surrounding churches and the Festung and narrow streets, I continued north to the Altstadt.

The bus set me down on the far side of the Salzach near the pedestrian bridge, the Mozartsteg. Swirling snow gave the afternoon a dusk-like feeling. People walked heads down or under umbrellas. I dawdled crossing the bridge, stopping to look down into the shallow blue-green waves. It seemed as though I could see stones on the river bottom. A thin layer of slush covered the bridge so I trod carefully, stepping on the raised metal cleats to keep my footing. On the opposite shore, a man stopped his bicycle as we waited for the light to cross. He wore a plastic or nylon cape that covered his shoulders and body as well as the handlebars and most of his bike. It made sense; I had been wondering how people used bikes as transport in wet weather.

The Festung on its mountain and the domes and steeples of the churches below were shrouded in the dim grey light and thickly falling snow. The narrow streets and shop windows, although still festooned with shining colours, were dimmer through the mist. One shop window was filled – entirely filled – with painted Easter eggs. I’d seen it before, the first night of my first visit to the Altstadt, but it had been closed. Inside, painted eggs, real blown hens’ eggs, were displayed by the dozens, resting in 48-count egg flats and 12-egg cartons, hung by ribbons from small bare branches, painted in scores of different patterns and colours. It’s a minor industry here, where Easter is taken very seriously. Under the low stone-ribbed groin vaults of the ancient building, fully the first half of the large shop was filled with eggs and other Easter decorations. (The back half of the shop, fronting on another street, was filled with Christmas decorations.) A few of the eggs were goose eggs, painted and cut in filigreed patterns; there were a few candles and other twee tchotchkes, as well, but the variety of eggs was overwhelming. A mother and her serious-faced daughter, about 8 years old, moved among them, carefully examining eggs and putting them into an egg carton.

Outside again, I wandered, aimless, growing colder. My feet especially were feeling the cold rising from the slushy pavement. And – curse of middle age – I needed to pee. Stopping at the entrance of the stately Hotel Altstadt, I considered going in. Perhaps I could find the toilet; maybe I would stop for a coffee – ein grosser brauner, as I’ve learned to say. It would be nice to get in from the cold.

As I hesitated, the door opened and out came a woman, a bustling woman in black. From a leather bag hung over her arm peered a toffee-coloured dog the size of a handkerchief. She was a woman of a certain age, of woman of substance, with the heft of wealth, wearing a black coat of Persian lamb with fur collar. A dome-shaped black fur hat nested over a full silver bob; wide black earrings set with diamantes hung from her ears. Fumbling with a small camera with hands encased in soft black leather, she addressed me in musical French-accented English, a charming voice. A friendly voice.

‘I had to come out to take a picture of my dog. She’s never seen the snow.’

The dog, a solemn-looking miniature terrier with a red ribbon tied in the fur that flopped over her face, looked at me, incurious.

‘How old is she?’ I asked, which seemed relevant in the circumstance.

She was precise. ‘Seventeen months.’

‘And what’s her name?’

‘Her name is Louise.’

I felt entitled by this familiarity to reach out and scratch the dog’s tiny head. Neither the woman in black nor Louise objected. The woman still fumbled with her camera.

‘Would you like me to take your picture with Louise?’

She was pleased with the suggestion, and we looked up to see, just across from us, a low dark doorway with a shallow pointed arch, the perfect frame, capturing the atmosphere of the street and setting off the falling snow before it. As they posed in front of it, dull light illuminated woman and dog, while soft fluffy flakes drifted in front of them. I took one picture, exclaiming at how lovely they looked, then another, capturing the woman’s bright smile. They were good pictures.

We stood a minute after admiring them as people hurried past us. ‘Are you staying here?’, she asked.

I hesitated. How nice to be able to claim the stately hotel as mine, to pretend to be at home and warm in its rich comforts. A frisson of regret flashed through me as I groped for a suitable explanation.

‘No,’ I said. ‘We’ve just moved here from Ireland. To live.’

Do I speak German? No? I’ll have to learn, I said.

What language do I speak?

‘Only English. And you?’, I asked. ‘You’re French?’

She nodded.

‘Where are you live?’

‘Monaco.’ Which seemed somehow perfect.

Then we said ‘Au revoir’, and she disappeared into the door of the Hotel Altstadt, and I walked on, still aimless, wandering in the cold, feeling it was now impossible to slip unnoticed inside the grand hotel just to use the toilet.

Monday, March 15, 2010

An Encounter

Spring – in its commonly understood sense, not its astronomical one – is late this year in Tipperary. A week ago, the day before the movers arrived to pack, I walked from the corner where our road, the ancient Dublin road, meets the even narrower road to Ballylooby, seat of the local parish. It is at this corner that the old house, built by my mother-in-law’s grandfather, stands. As far as I know, it was last occupied sometime after the birth of my husband’s oldest sister – who is now retired – when my father-in-law, the penultimate child of a family of ten, moved his young family from the cottage to a town on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland in pursuit of his career. The roofline is showing cracks, slates are slipping, windows are shattered. Still, remnants of furniture and crockery lie cluttered under its low ceilings. Ash from recent fires fill its wide open-hearth fireplace. As a teenager, when visitors from Boston arrived for summer visits, my husband and his brothers spent nights there, in upper rooms reached by stairs now so sagging I lack the courage to explore them.

At the disused entrance to the yard, horse chestnut branches dangled over the gate, bulbous purple tips oozing. I had been searching for signs of spring, wanting some hint of it before leaving. There were a few, but they were slight – reddening of bare dogwood branches on road sides, a scattering of deep gold and vivid purple crocuses at the base of the Big Tree, and the hint of arrow tipped leaves where I had planted tulips bulbs last fall. Still, the spreading branches of beeches across the fields showed no hint of pale green haze. Hedges were dull green and brown, showing jagged spears of pale torn ash branches where they had been recently cut. I would not see the daffodils bloom before going away.

I was on my way to our neighbours, the Murphys. From our kitchen window, you can see the rounded roof of the Murphy hay shed half hidden by the trees, a line marking the near horizon below the further horizon of the Knockmealdowns. When I first came to Tipperary, Anne Murphy was particularly kind to me. Offering red wine during late afternoon visits, she gave me also advice and lent cookbooks as I tried to learn to cook using different measures and ingredients, vegetables new to me and unfamiliar cuts of meat (or names of cuts of meat). Soon, though, changing work schedules, illness, the birth of her grandchild – life – had limited our visits. It had been too long since we sat together with a glass of red wine, and now I was going away.

Anne, her husband Michael, and I sat by the fire in their sitting room that looks west over the rolling fields, the low sun bright in our eyes. Michael and Anne told me what they could tell about the big tree, how it was part of the hedge at the entrance of the avenue leading to Millgrove, how it came to be burned, and how our neighbours stood circling it, protesting over two days, refusing to let the council cut it down. This was not long ago, perhaps 15 years back, within the time I had been coming to the neighbourhood, but I had never heard the story. They promised to try to recall more details of the tree’s history and send them to me.

We agreed that the hard frosts of winter were lasting too long. Usually by Patrick’s Day the road sides and gardens would be filled with daffodils. Now, a week before the 17th, there were just the tips of leaves and bare swelling buds, cresting the earth only this week. I worried aloud about the birds I had been feeding. How would they survive when I left? Michael didn’t agree with feeding birds; it makes them lazy, he said. But the winter has been so cold, exclaimed Anne and I. They would have starved! Maybe, he conceded, more out of kindness than conviction, I thought.

Anne told me about visiting Salzburg with their daughter, who has worked in one after another European capital for years now. It’s a beautiful city, they said, a nice drive from Munich, convenient to Italy, even Paris. I would learn German, she was sure, though her daughter prefers French. German, we agreed, is easier to pronounce than French, which I studied for years in secondary school and university without gaining verbal fluency. I’d get by, she told me. In the cities of Europe, if not in the country, so many people speak English. It’s true, I said. Dependent on tourism, Salzburg is a welcoming city, and most people I met there speak English.

I drained the last of my glass of wine and stood, saying goodbye to Michael, urging him to take care of himself. He was born on the morning of my mother-in-law’s 18th birthday, and his health has been poor recently. Anne and I embraced at the door, then she stepped outside with me. Under a small tree near the door, she picked a bright gold crocus and handed it to me. ‘Put this in a book,’ she said.

In the field next to their long drive, sheep congregated at the rail fence, bawling loudly. Were they hungry, I wondered. No, said Anne, it’s just they hear our voices. We said goodbye again, and she went into the house, waving as she went. I clutched the crocus and crossed to the fence, drawn by the sheep. Those closest to the fence put their heads over it, while more approached from behind them, bawling louder. Heavy with thick dirty wool, they watched me as the noise of their bawling swelled. Though they must be ewes, I thought, the heavy bass of their baaing was masculine in its intensity. It rumbled up from the depth, Robeson-deep, shuddering the air. I watched them; they watched me with equal intensity. Strange, I thought, how I’d never stood and contemplated sheep in the time I’d been there. Well, there was the solitary ram we sometimes passed in a small pen on our bike rides. I had dismounted and stood watching him. But never had I seen sheep come up to the fence, observing me while bawling at volume. I tried to take in their faces, black and dull white-grey, their thick coats, the shape of their hooves, their eyes and ears.

Those at the fence stood watching me watching them while stragglers behind them drew closer. I longed to reach out to stroke one. What would happen? I tentatively put a hand out; the ewe drew back. Still, we stood.

At length, I tried the trick Himself had showed me as we stood next to a field of young calves, also watching us. I drew myself up and, while looking intently, suddenly jumped side to side: right foot, left foot.

Unlike the calves, they did not all immediately scatter, but it startled them. They drew back, and briefly the bawling quieted. Then it rose again, loud and deep; it followed me as I walked away in the growing dusk, still holding between two fingers my golden crocus.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Leaving Tipperary

If autumn is the season of mists, so too, in Ireland this year, is spring. We awake each morning lately to a hard frost, temperatures below freezing and the rough grass surrounding the house stiff and white. White mist hovers above fields and hangs like a scrim over the mountains. The neighbour’s barns beyond the trees at the bottom of our garden are muted, as if behind gauze. In the early light, a rose-pink band rests just at the edge of the horizon; pale blue rises above it. Gaps in the row of towering Leyland cypresses reveal a blanket of white covering the field next to the house. Across the road and over the low, recently cut, hedge, the stubble of last year’s harvest is pale under the frost. Even as the sky brightens, the mist lasts the morning. Yesterday, as I drove down from Dublin, a pale faint haze obscured signs on the already-confusing web of motorway interchanges and roundabouts, making the drive –- the first ever on my own –- more stressful.

I was driving from Dublin, and on my own, because my husband left early yesterday morning for a meeting in Dusseldorf and then continued on to Salzburg in the evening. Except for return visits, it was his final departure from Ireland for the foreseeable future. He has ‘moved’, a reality that still hasn’t fully sunk in. I will follow him next week.

We drove up the night before and stayed in Bewley’s next to the airport. Before going, we went together next door to say good-bye to his mother, me staying only briefly so they could have some time alone together. She’s nearly 90, so we realise that for her, more than for most, each good-bye could be final. As I left her house and came through the lowering dusk back to our own, longing and sadness and a sense of profound loss overcame me. The line of our roof, neat and dark over white walls, the late sweet song of a blackbird, the tracery of still-bare branches silhouetted against the pale sky, all called me as tears brimmed. It was not so hard to leave California, where I had lived most of my life, as it is to leave this house and countryside.

In the car, we passed the ivy-covered ruin known as Whitechurch, a church so old that it was derelict as far back as the 16th century. Its churchyard, though, has received the dead in recent memory, and I thought how I must make time to visit it again in the next few days. We turned right at the Big Tree, the ancient beech carved with my husband’s initials as well as those of his brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, and his parents, aunts and uncles before them. Beyond it, leading away from us now, the road rose up the hill we’ve cycled so often, with Sally, my mother-in-law’s border collie, galloping beside us. Just above the summit of the hill, the sky glowed deep rose-red, the darker horizon pressing low against it.

We passed Tincurry house on our right and Millgrove, the plain but handsome house -- it puts me in mind of Austin -- built by prosperous Quakers in the 18th century, on our left. Ahead of us, the Galtees lay shadowed blue against the slightly brighter sky.

‘Look,’ said Himself. ‘There’s a star above the mountain, just about to set.’

The road turned again, and a stand of trees stood between us and the mountain. When we had passed them, I searched the horizon but could see no star.


He scanned the deepening sky, but --

‘It must have set already.’

And so we entered the new motorway and turned northeast, toward Dublin and away from Tipperary.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


The flat by the wood had infected the imagination of each of us, though we were concerned by its distance from the city centre and what we felt was a down-at-the-heels aspect to the neighbourhood. It seemed somehow scruffy as well as remote. But Salzburg is not a large city, and the buses are said to be excellent. I certainly had no trouble getting from the hotel into the Altstadt. Every 5 minutes, one of two buses passes, each one going the quick 10 minutes into the city centre. I decided to see how long it would take from there to the flat.

Judging by a street map and the bus plan, it seemed two bus lines went near the flat, but which of the two was the one we had seen pulling away from a bus stop not far from it? I chose one of the two and boarded it at the stop by the river, just up from the Rathhaus in the Altstadt. It dropped me on an unfamiliar bypass far from winding medieval passages, cars whizzing by, near a sharp short path that crossed a narrow canal. It had taken 21 minutes, not too bad, I thought.

I waited as our sat nav, already programmed with the flat’s address and just switched on, located a satellite. Then I started walking, passing at first a series of small houses and apartment buildings along a narrow, poorly paved road. At last the street wound round a curve and opened out across a large empty field pocked with thousands of mole holes, ubiquitous around Salzburg. Across the field -– away in the distance -– I could see more low buildings. I walked and walked under a pale sun, comfortable enough on this spring-like day, but wondering how it would be in summer’s notorious rain or winter’s snow. By the time I came to the end of the narrow street where the flat lay and stood looking up at its dark windows, 18 minutes had passed. Too long to walk from a bus stop with a backpack full of groceries. Not doable in heels after a night out.

The street still seemed seedy. The house, shabby, its angular façade uninviting. The wood with its thin stand of conifers, unimpressive, monotonous. On the dark porch of the downstairs flat stood a toy JCB, the kind a toddler can peddle, and an infant’s push chair. They’d be noisy, wouldn’t they?

It was time to give up on the flat, despite the prickling sense that the woodcarver wanted someone who would care about –- care for –- his craftsmanship. Having seen it, I felt a responsibility toward him. Or, more particularly, his ghost. But the street, and the 40-minute journey from the town centre, was unwelcome.

I faced an 18-minute walk and a dash through traffic to the bus stop. But before I moved away, I turned toward the wood, thinking to explore what lay beyond the end of the house opposite the flat. There was a faint path, just a trace of previous footsteps, in the rough grass at the end of the low wall that surrounded a small garden. After a few metres, the ground dropped steeply to a path that circled a pond. Then I saw the swans.

There were a pair of them, necks rising elegantly over pure white bodies, gliding through the waters on the far side of pond, where the ice had melted. Nearer me, in the shadows, the ice had not yet dissolved, putting me in mind of winter’s afternoons spent skating. I followed the path, about the length of a quarter-mile track, the pond the size of football field of an American high school. Mallard ducks swam in the inlet of a tiny island near the shore; with them were the funny black-and-white fowl I think are called coots. Above my head, in the stillness of the morning, I could hear the high shrill call of a bird I didn’t recognise. Rounding the curve on the narrow end of the pond, I could see a pair of horses in a field just beyond the pond. A man walking his dog greeted another, pipe in his mouth; a third man strolled along drinking something from a bottle.

Sitting down on one of the benches that lined the path, I searched my map. I remembered the other bus stop, one much closer to the house, which we had seen as we drove away the day before. Maybe, by programming the sat nav with a street name taken from the map, I could find the other bus line, the one I didn’t take.

I started walking again and passed, not far along, what seemed like a small administration building. This was apparently part of a recreational area. There were other ponds, a lake for swimming, paths leading off toward another wood. And now, about two hundred metres along, I saw a bus pulling away. All within a couple of short blocks from the flat.

Maybe this can be done after all.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Birds

It's lambing time here in Ireland. It’s been weeks since we’ve out on our bikes, rolling through grey- and green-lined lanes, catching sight of sheep in the pastures. It's not going to happen now before we leave again for Salzburg. But when I went out this morning in the early quiet, just after 7, I could hear from across the fields the low bawling of the ewes and the higher bleating of their lambs.

I stopped and listened for a minute. It's warmer this morning, after several mornings of hard frosts and temperatures of -3 or -5. The sky, stretching back to where the horizon meets the blue Knockmeadowns, was heavy blue-grey. I stood on the step and listened thoughtfully, with rare attention: There were the bawlings of the sheep and the lowings of cattle and, over it all, the sharp cawings of the crows as they called each other from field to field. There was no low rumble of traffic on motorway or road, which is what we heard when we stopped to listen outside the flat by the wood in Salzburg. Just the sheep and cattle and crows and the sweet twittering of small birds filling the broad, strangely luminous, sky arching over the green valley from the Galtees to the Knockmealdowns.

I wondered where the lively bold robin, who flits to my feet when I come out with the seed each morning, had gone. He's been there every morning, sometimes two of them, through the hard frosts and snow. But they are solitary birds, I believe, and last spring they seemed to disappear from our garden at a certain point, nesting, probably, further down the bottom of the site in the dense hedge there. In fact, yesterday I watched a magpie lift high over the hedge with a twig in its mouth, then return and make the same journey with another twig.

This morning I again filled the bird feeders where the tits, finches and sparrows congregate and scattered seed under the low branches of the hedge for the blackbirds and thrushes. I cast it across the rough stone area that has served as our patio, where the doves and wood pigeons, the crows and jackdaws, Willie wagtails and magpies, hunt and peck out the best bits. I've done so every morning since the mellow autumn with its seeds and berries and late fruit turned to frosts and barren ground. The winter was so cold that even a cock pheasant took to stalking the ground, scrounging for seeds under the feeder. Last spring I scattered seed and filled the feeders until the summer was well established, but this year I won't be here. I can only hope the ground soon warms so the thrushes and blackbirds can root out snails and slugs from the uncultivated grass. From the hotel room in Salzburg, I fretted last week when I heard it was snowing in South Tipperary, fretted because I imagined the birds in vast white blankness, unable to forage for grubs and seeds.

Naturally, Himself points out that there have been birds for hundreds of thousands of years, and they have survived without Saint Lorraine feeding them, and they will go on surviving when I am not here. But not these particular birds, our birds, the thrushes and blackbirds that sang last summer as we sat in the warmth of a rare sunny evening. Not the pert bold robin that flits to my feet when I come out each morning. They are the birds I feed, not the untold generations of those birds that survived before me.

I had awakened early, tossing in the half darkness, worrying. My husband leaves tomorrow evening to return to the office in Salzburg. I’ll remain behind to oversee the packing and shipping and turn the house over to the estate agent. The finality of this week is closing in on me; we are really leaving this house. We will be once again packing all, or nearly all, of our possessions and moving them to another country. Now clothes hang in wardrobes or lie folded in drawers; now dishes and saucepans and casseroles are stacked in cupboards, and books line shelves. But Monday or Tuesday, possibly, there will be chaos as packers call me from room to room while they toss (or place neatly) all of it into packing cases and my stomach churns and knots. Then they will leave, and I will find myself in an empty, or nearly empty, house, rooms echoing, as I contemplate the luggage to be hauled to Dublin and into the hold of the plane, for a flight that hasn’t even been booked on a date still to be determined. The car hasn’t been disposed of. A tenant has not been found. Accounts haven’t yet been closed. I have no address to which to forward the mail. But by two weeks time, at the outside, I will be once again in Salzburg.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Wood

Wednesday, Agnes, the relocation specialist, drove us to five different rental possibilities. From the comfort of our house in Ireland, we had ticked boxes on a form outlining our requirements, indicating their relative importance on a 0 to 2 scale. Our answers were, of course, limited by our complete ignorance of what houses are like in Salzburg, what the cost of living is or the net amount of the check each month, as well as of other of unknowns and variables. And, as it happens, move-in costs are enormous. In addition to rent, there is a deposit amounting to, generally, two or three months’ rent as well as a broker’s commission of another two months’ rent plus 20% VAT. Who has €5,000 or €6,000, over and above rent, lying around, liquid and accessible? Not us – we just finished furnishing one house and building a garage. It’s one more thing on the overwhelming list of things we’ll have to work out.

Among our requirements for a flat, ranking high is enough space for a bedroom and a spare plus at least one additional room that can be a dedicated (or nearly dedicated) office. Another essential is accessibility to the city centre by bus. We intend only to have one car, and I will rely on the bus and my bicycle to get around while my husband is at the office. And we want to be able have a meal and drinks of an evening out and get home by bus. Ideally, the flat itself with be within walking distance of the city centre, but we realise that may not be possible. Salzburg is a tourist-oriented city, and rents reflect this.

Of the properties we looked at Wednesday, only one really met these requirements, and it was, though spacious and close to the centre, a uninspiring place with cramped and depressing bathrooms. It’s going to be hard to let go of the pleasant, light-filled house in Ireland, designed and built to meet our specific needs. We tramped through the flats on offer, trying to remain positive and open to the possibilities, working out costs in our heads, with growing disillusionment. Three-year leases are standard here, and with the move-in costs so high, one doesn’t lightly take on just anything with the expectation of moving in a few months’ time.

One place, the least likely of all, did capture our imagination, though. We reached it after driving what seemed a long way from the city centre, and then down a narrow lane on the edge of town. The flat takes up the top floor of what was a single family house built probably 30 or 40 years ago, sitting on the edge of a small wood. Through a dark, wood-carved door, we entered a anteroom with a large mirror set into a wood carved frame, which turned out to conceal the electrical panel. We stood briefly in the stairwell tiled, walls and floors, with the deep red marble I think of as porphyry, a fragmentary and possibly inaccurate detail residual from my days as an art history major. Up the stairs and onto a landing, also red tiled, we passed through another wood-carved doorway and found ourselves in an entry panelled, walls and ceiling, with still more hand-carved wood. It seems wood carving had been the hobby – perhaps even the obsession – of the man who had raised his family in the house. Throughout the flat, surfaces are panelled with intricately carved wood, the walls accented in places with gilt light fixtures, giving the impression that one has entered one of the lesser corridors of Versailles.

Off the entrance is a large room with pale timber floors and white plaster crown moulding – popularly called coving in Ireland – with a central medallion. A large window fills the room’s west-facing wall and opens onto a balcony overlooking what seemed a rather shabby garden, all of which belongs to the flat. (The downstairs flat has its own garden on another side of the house.) The balcony turns 90 degrees to run along the hall off which the bedrooms and a bathroom lie. This window-lined hall creates a south-facing gallery, which would be a pleasant place to sit in the sun on a winter’s day. More carved wood panels line its ceiling, these ornamented by carved and painted roundels about a foot in diameter, one of the crescent moon and a star, another of the sun.

The bathroom off this corridor is spacious and tiled with grey-and-white marble. One wall is fitted with cupboards enclosed by more carved wood panels. One of the bedrooms has a fitted wardrobe with doors upholstered in faded pink-and-white chintz set into carved frames. A second toilet off the flat’s entrance is tiled with more red marble and wood panels, making an elegant if slightly claustrophobic WC.

Of the five places we saw, including a single-family house by a creek in a Salzburg suburb, this is the only one that fires our imagination. But in the moment, it feels isolated, far from the city centre, at the end of what seems a scruffy neighbourhood. A funky neighbourhood, in fact. And, says Himself, we might be haunted by the ghost of the man who lovingly carved all that wood.