Thursday, July 29, 2010

Summer Rain

In the three years since I’ve moved from Southern California – where I’d lived with only a few hiatuses since 1969 – to Europe, I’ve had enough rainy summers to make up for those many hot, dry, drought-dominated years. Two summers in Ireland brought week after week of wind-blown rain and cooler-than-normal temperatures. This summer in Austria, too, has been wet, and I’m becoming used to planning my days around rain.

Lying at the northern edge of the Alps, Salzburg has a generally moderate but humid climate, making summers seem hotter than the temperature suggests. And because the mountains tend to block the passage of weather systems, it is subject to frequent heavy rains that may begin suddenly at almost any time. They bring with them the local weather phenomenon called Schnürlregen, or string rain.

I've never seen anything like string rain. It falls heavily, steady, and nearly perfectly perpendicular, a thick silver curtain. On stormy mornings, as I write in my office, I may hear approaching rolling thunder over the shriek of planes taking off from the nearby airport. But, at times, even the thunder is difficult to hear over the steady deep thrumming of rain hitting the pavement and the roof. Like translucent weighted cords, the rain falls with such force that a mist arises between me and the dense wall of green at the edge of the wood not 50 metres from this house.

I feel it in my body. Between the noise, the sudden breath of air on my arms in the heat and the heightened tension in the atmosphere, I become distracted, unable to focus on what I'm trying to write. Even watching from inside, I feel entirely engulfed, like being within an open-sided thatch hut, isolated in a jungle.

One recent hot day, as I spent hours struggling to write, it reached 26 C in my office, the air motionless and stuffy. It was 27 outside, so opening a window was not an option. Unlike in America, air conditioning is almost unheard of here. Most shops don’t even have it. I was faced with sucking it up.

Later that afternoon the sky darkened, a little, just a light pall, and the shadows on the concrete patio became murky, the way they look during an eclipse. A chance of storm, the forecast said, and I was glad I’d brought in the wash from the line. However, it didn’t rain then, though perhaps it did cool down, slightly. After dinner on the wide covered balcony of this first-floor flat, I sat outside with a drink in the warm darkness, watching the sky and thinking.

Then from the distance came the occasional brief light, faintly and at long intervals. The flashes grew brighter and more frequent, and the wind grew stronger, and soon a light rain began. I felt the soft breath of the moving air on my bare arms as I watched the thunderstorm, possibly the most dramatic I’ve seen. The rain pelted down, heavy, weighted, thick. The horizon was opaque, and the flashes of lightning appeared not as jagged bolts but as full-on illumination, the night going from dull darkness to an intense brightness, the intensity of the sudden flash of a photographer’s strobe. It was as though there were three levels of light, the dull half darkness of the overcast night sky, a brighter light of the initial flash, and then an intense sudden brief strobe turning the night into a negative, reversing light and dark. It was as bright as anything I’ve seen, the stab of over-bright lights bringing you to sudden full wakefulness or the glare of bright beams hitting your eyes directly in the darkness.

At length the lightning and thunder ceased, and the sky darkened again. I went to bed, leaving the curtains slightly opened. From my pillow I watched the steady rain, backlit by a streetlight – like strings of crystal beads drawn across a doorway – falling into my sleep.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I’ve been surprised when readers ask why I keep referring to my husband as ‘Himself’. I assumed this Irish expression was commonly known. I understood it as one of the mannerisms associated with stage-Irish brogues communicating a clichéd notion of ‘Irishness’.

Since I’ve been asked, I’ll explain as well as I can. Becoming less common, but still in use, ‘himself’ refers to the man of the house or the boss of the shop – the person in authority. (Its counterpart is 'herself', the woman of the house.)  It’s a way of referring indirectly to someone all parties to the conversation know. It implies familiarity, even though its tone, while affectionate, is occasionally sardonic.

Himself – my Himself – suggests that asking whether Seamus is at home might cause the woman of the house to exclaim, ‘Why? What’s wrong!’, as though such formality boded bad news or ill will. Or, he theorises, it could be summed up as ‘I wouldn’t want to insult you by suggesting you don’t know your own husband’s name.’ Hence, ‘Is Himself about?’

I use the expression here to protect my husband’s privacy. I pulled ‘Himself’ out of the air one morning as I tried publish a post, mindful that too much thought over what to call him would cause me to stall for days, weeks, months.

But, now that it’s come up, where does the expression come from?

Like so many idiosyncrasies of Irish speech, it probably comes from the Irish – Gaeilge as translated directly into English. The syntax of Gaeilge is very different from that of English, and these differences are sometimes reflected in common Irish idiom, making a distinctive pattern of speech. As Hugh Kenner writes in A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (which I am delighted to discover is still in print): ‘So an English comes to be spoken that has nothing grammatically wrong with it but still something strange about it.’

Exactly how this particular usage came from the Irish I haven’t been able to determine through my limited research. At a guess, it’s probably related to the fact that there isn’t a single pronoun in Irish for the first person. Instead, the pronoun is contained in the verb. So ‘myself’ may be added to a phrase as an intensifier. Similarly, the reflexive is used as an intensifier in the expression ‘Good man yourself’, also a translation from the Irish.

Himself – the man of this housewonders if the usage arose when the ordinary Irish, forced into uneasy adoption of the English language and the customs of the colonisers, found themselves grappling with the formalities of the landed estate. The master would have been referred to as ‘His Lordship’ or ‘His Honour’, so they would be schooled to refer to their betters in the third person, which in more relaxed circumstances was transmuted to Himself.

That’s merely a guess, a stab in the dark, but as such, completely unsupported by evidence, it has the felicity of evoking the fraught servant-master relationship in a colonial Ireland with its unequal partnership of Anglo-Irish masters and formerly Irish-speaking servants.

It puts me in mind of the Irish RM stories of Somerville and Ross. In these comic tales, the resident magistrate, Major Yeates, recently arrived from England, grapples with life in rural Ireland. Time and again, his expectation of a level of formality in behaviour and class distinctions is challenged by the more relaxed standards of Irish country life. The tension between this representative of authority and the colonised people around him plays out against a background of a kind of squinting, ironic deference on the part of the Irish.

So I too imagine a long-ago Irish labourer or house servant, subject to His Lordship and Her Ladyship. My imaginary servant, perhaps a first-generation English speaker, holds in reserve that small coin of autonomy, his own soft rebellion, the wry, not entirely derisive, irreverence, uttered in the fields, across the back of a horse as it is unsaddled or in the clamorous depths of the kitchen: Is Himself at home?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dress Parade

The night I first arrived in Salzburg, I was stuck by all the dirndls and lederhosen, short jackets and feather-trimmed felt hats, displayed in shop windows. Being in the Altstadt, tourist central, I assumed this traditional clothing was for the benefit of visitors longing to recreate the Sound of Music look at home. Later, as I continued to see similar clothes in shop windows away from the heart of town, in modern shopping malls patronised by ordinary Austrians – and as I saw people on city streets and in offices wearing it – I began to realise that traditional dress, called tracht, continues to play a part in life here.

When and where is it worn? On Sundays and holidays. At weddings and festivals. As ordinary street wear. On casual outings. Everywhere.

It was yesterday, though, I saw the tradition in a new light. On our way to Berchtesgaden, just over the border in Germany, we passed through Marktschellenberg. A pretty town, seemingly lost in an earlier time, it sits on the banks of the river Wimbach in the valley of the same name, tucked into the base of green forested mountains. It looks like a lot of German and Austrian towns, with stout timber and stucco buildings, with wide balconies and overhanging eaves, painted soft colours and frequently decorated with painted figures and ornamental designs.

It was a soft day, overcast with the possibility of rain coming at any minute, but warm all the same. As we approached the church, we saw a brass band, dressed in tracht, instruments at the ready, standing with others also in traditional dress. We pulled over and were just in time to catch the start of a procession.

The band, led by a drum major with a tall baton, started a military march and stepped off, men in dark short trousers, women wearing dark long skirts with bright orange aprons. Suddenly a thunderous BOOM split the air, then, a few seconds later, another. High on the side of the mountain above, a cannon was being fired. Two cannons, in fact, fired alternately throughout the 10-minute procession – Boom! Boom!  Boom! from the green mountain meadow as a trail of blue-grey smoke shimmered toward the sky.

The band was followed by a long procession of marchers, also marching four abreast, apparently in groups representing different clubs and associations. One group of men wore suits of fitted, lapel-less jackets and trousers. Bristling brushes sprang from their felt hats. Another group were in dark, vaguely military uniforms, their hats decorated with sprig of bright flowers – geraniums or red roses. Others wore lederhosen with clusters of oak leaves fastened to their hats. Women passed in white blouses and pastel dirndls over which flowered aprons fluttered. Behind them came children, the boys in lederhosen and, save for knitted bands worn just under the knees, bare legs. Little girls were dressed in pink dirndls and aprons. They held hands as they walked, encouraged by a woman with them who pulled a wooden wagon with two babies sitting placidly in it.

There were men wearing climbing costumes, too, and men in short grey lederhosen. A group of women were dressed in another kind of traditional costume, black dresses with corseted tops over which peeped snow-white blouses. They wore old-fashioned round black hats like flat donuts, so the crowns of their heads were exposed. Each had an identical silver hair ornament pushed into hair coiled on her head; each carried a woven straw bag featuring a straw-coloured and black pattern.

In the middle of the possession, two light bay horses with large harnesses drew an open carriage carrying apparent dignitaries, including the priest. Behind them came more marchers, still in ranks of four across. A white banner was held aloft, deep blue feathers cascading off it. Some marchers carried batons held erect. Anticipating the weather, many others had umbrellas at their sides.

There must have been 300 or 400 marchers in all. Considering the few people watching, it seemed the whole village was part of the procession, save one elderly man. He stood near us, dressed in uniform, limping when he moved. As the marchers came past, they nodded to him.

‘He would have been marching, if only he could march,’ remarked my husband.

By now the procession had marched up a short diagonal street, rounded a corner and wound back past us, then turned down the path where we stood watching, and passed us a third time, this time feet away. It moved toward a marquee – probably erected for bier and wurstl to be enjoyed later – and halted. It was exactly noon by the clock on the church tower, and the bells began to peal. They continued tolling for many minutes, calling out while the marchers assembled themselves on a small platz in front of the marquee. When the bells fell silent, some of the uniformed men stepped forward in a kind of honour guard, holding rifles. Then, commanded by a man wielding a long silver sword, they fired several volleys of shots into the air.

We stood near the river’s edge, its pale blue-green alpine water flowing past under thick green trees, watching the good-natured celebration. It seemed relaxed, natural, simply a part of life. It’s a ritual we assume has been repeated year after year, down through how many centuries. And, in fact, Himself observed that similar festivals and processions occur all over Germany and Austria, each town and village following its own traditions, honouring its own saints, memorialising its own heroes.

And why not? If one village has a procession and festival, others will follow. Maybe, we conjectured, the tradition arose from a kind of tribal keeping up with the Jones. But whatever its roots, it was a joy to watch it, another in a series serendipitous pleasures I feel lucky to have stumbled on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


This blog has its origins in letters I wrote friends from Ireland, initially when we made annual visits to my husband’s family and, from late 2007, when we moved there to live. In the letters I tried to describe my experiences not only as a tourist sightseeing but also as an American married into a large Irish family with complex relationships.

The emphasis has shifted, naturally, as what I write is made public in posts here and as I write from Austria, which was completely unknown to me until I arrived here to live.

The foreign nature of Austria is exciting, turning me into a child, after a fashion. It also presents difficulties in writing. As I wrote in one of the first posts, I am bewildered at times in writing about places, architecture, landscapes and people that still seem exotic. I lack the visual vocabulary, at times, to understand what I am seeing. Some times the writing constitutes a kind of exploration as I try to find words – vocabulary of a different sort –  to capture what I see and experience.

In the June 28th issue of The New Yorker, Oliver Sacks explores briefly the mechanics of visual recognition.  

‘Although seeing objects, defining them visually, seems to be instantaneous and innate,’ he writes, ‘it represents a great perceptual achievement, one that requires a whole hierarchy of functions. We do not see objects as such; we see shapes, surfaces, contours, and boundaries, presenting themselves in different illuminations or contexts, changing perspective with their movement and ours.’

So it is, to an extent, with seeing and coming to know the Austrian landscape. As I discover the different textures, shapes and boundaries of the experience, my perspective constantly changes. I struggle, trying to find an aesthetic or experiential entrée so I can communicate the gestalt: what it is to be here, as the person I am, in a foreign country.

Sometimes I’m pleased with the result. Other times, I am frustrated and discouraged with what I produce. The experience of travelling in the Italian Alps was visually and emotionally overwhelming. It was also compressed, challenging my ability to process and then communicate it. The result feels flabby and unfocussed.

Other posts seem excruciatingly self-revealing: My reflections on my birthday, for instance, or the portraits of a self-conscious woman meeting strangers and considering how to connect with them. Still, I promised myself I’d post what I come up with, and I try to post with some regularity in the hope that those of you who seek me out will keep reading.

If you do, thank you very much indeed. It’s nice to know you’re out there.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Dolomites

We’ve committed to ourselves to make an effort to see as much of Europe as we can while we’re here, so Saturday, nearly on the spur of the moment, after doing our weekly grocery market, we took off for Cortina d’Ampezza, 273 km away in the Italian Alps.

The Italian Alps – the Dolomites – lie within the district known by Austrians as Südtirol. Part of Austria until it was ceded to Italy at the end of World War I, it is known by Italians as Alto Adige. Although Mussolini tried to make the region more Italian it by replacing German place names with Italian ones, it retains much of its Tyrolean heritage and, often, German is spoken.

We drove south from Salzburg toward Zell am See, then turned west to pass through the Hohe Tauern national park, then through Lienz, before crossing the border into Italy. Though the architecture and steep green broad fields of this most northerly part of Italy looks much like Austria, the Dolomites are dramatically  different from Salzburg’s more modest Alps.

The Dolomites stand stark, jagged and bare, a contrast to the green lushness of lower mountains. The stone – seen from the valley below – seems friable, and indeed there are wide areas of pale, powdery-white scree along some sections of the road or visible midway down the face. The peaks are cut in great vertical fissures, their pale, nearly colourless faces reflecting the passing colours of the sky, turning gold, umber, violet and deeper brown depending on the light.

We arrived in Cortina in about four hours. It's a very pretty town, a ski resort, as are so many of the towns in the region, filled with dark-timbered buildings with wide balconies, very like Austrian houses. There are stout stucco buildings, too, painted the soft colours of the Mediterranean, many with the decorative motifs and murals commonly seen in Salzburg and throughout this region. A church with a free-standing steeple dominates the town centre; around it a series of plazas are connected by streets lined with shops selling high-end clothes, jewellery, furs and leather goods, art and antiques.

It was a hot evening, and we sat for a time on one of the plazas having a drink and watching the passing parade. There were plenty of tourists like ourselves, of course. But there were also couples walking dogs of all sizes, women dressed as though they were returning from evening mass and those carrying bags heavy with food from the market. Families stood and talked as their young children chased each other around the plaza, laughing and calling out. Babies were pushed in strollers or carried on the backs of their parents. A young boy wheeled on a tiny pink scooter. It reminded us of the village in Spain we visited last summer, where the whole community, from children to grandparents, came out in the evening to socialise on the town plaza.

Following suggestions we found online at Rick Steven’s Europe, in the morning we mapped an itinerary along the Grande Strada delle Dolomiti – the Great Dolomite Road – with Seis am Schlern as our ultimate destination. Off we went, the car climbing narrow winding roads with sheer drops off one side or the other, passing meadows of wild flowers and stands of conifers and other trees. We shared the road with what seemed like hundreds of cyclists and half the motor bikes in Europe, as well as a tour coach or three. Other cars appeared suddenly around bends, roaring towards us. It was a harrowing drive as we tried to pass straining cyclists on our right while impatient motor bikes, buzzing like mosquitoes, roared past on our left. At the top of Passo Falzarego (2105 metres/6906 feet), we stopped at the trail head. There, in the car park of a café and shop, we mingled with about 75 motor bike riders in their black leathers, many part of an organised run, as well as hikers, cyclists and other tourists like ourselves. Leaving, I took one too many photographs, so we got stuck right behind a huge tourist coach, which slowly made its way through tunnels and around corkscrew bends that, in many cases, exceeded 180 degrees as we followed it down the mountain.

After following the twisting road down, we began ascending again, still following the coach through tiny villages at the edge of cliffs, winding through woods, then passing meadows of grazing cows. Some of the cows ignored the procession of coach, cars, motor bikes and cyclists, caravans driven by Dutchmen – the Dutch seem to be very big on caravan holidays; others wandered to the edge of the road, large eyes set pale brown faces staring. Along the way, enormous tour coaches slowed to pass one another on the precipitous roads, while the motor bikes darted ahead and dogged cyclists pushed past, not to be crowded out.

Just before we reached Passo Pordoi (2242 metres/7355 feet), Himself managed to overtake the coach and off we went. As we zoomed by, I saw a young man having his picture taken next to the sign marking the pass. It must be famous, I thought.

My best friend during the drive – as we drove at times through tunnels several kilometres long or along roads with sheer drops below – was the door arm rest, which I gripped tightly, putting all my mental energy into keeping the car on the road.

The mountain views, however, were astonishing. Taller than any I’ve experienced, they made me feel as I felt at the Grand Canyon – surrounded by a vastness that must be experienced first hand. Below their stony peaks, in valleys thick with trees, we occasionally encountered ruins of stone schlosses, sometimes looking as though they were carved from the narrow stone outcroppings on which they stood. Or there might be thick timber-built houses surrounded by meadows. Whole villages perched on the precipices high above us, thick bulb-topped steeples visible against the sky.

As we passed through Livinallongo del Col di Lana, through the Val Fassa and the Vale ega Eggental on our way to Bolzano, the landscape seemed more lush, and the mountains lost the claw-like quality scratching the sky. I regretted the change; there was something essential in the barren naked peaks I missed.

Once in Bolzano, we walked in the withering heat toward its medieval central plaza. (Bolzano, once the part of the Austro-Hungarian county of Tyrol, is home to the 5,000-year-old remains know as Ötzi the Iceman.) We looked for tourist information to get us to our final destination. The information bureau, however, was closed, so we had an ice cream as we mapped out our route to Seis am Schlern.

I was again nervous on the 30-minute drive to Seis am Schlern on a road that hugged the side of a mountain overlooking a narrow gorge. On the mountain opposite, grape vines grew on a green terraced slope.

‘Look at the river down there,’ said my husband, spotting the Eisack nearly a thousand metres below us.

‘Wow. That’s some drop.’

Gripping the door handle, I was glad couldn’t see it.

We boarded the cable car under the fissured face of the peak known as the Schlern (2564 metres/8412 feet) and rode over a wide meadow into Europe’s highest mountain meadow, the Alpe di Siusia. The valley, eight miles wide and 20 miles long, rises to an altitude of 6,500 feet (1,981 metres), according to Steven’s site. On this day in early July, it was filled with wild flowers in fields bordered by trees. Houses and farm buildings, stout and tall, with broad balconies overhung with dark timber roofs, stood in steep pasture land, which was also dotted with small wooden sheds. As we ascended, cows grazed beneath our feet. From our car several hundred feet above, we could hear their bells ringing loudly and vigorously, like wind chimes on a March day.

From the upper cable car station, we looked across the valley to the Sasso Lungo mountains, or, in German, Langkofel, soaring 3,181 metres (10,436 feet) at the tallest peak. Beyond them, other ranges stretched into the distance, growing fainter against a sky that darkened as a storm approached. Behind us, the Schlern stood bare and brooding, like a jagged broken tooth.

Driving through Innsbruck on our way home, we continued to be surrounded by towering mountains that seemed to march away into the distance, rank after rank. Because Salzburg sits at the northern tip of the Alps, it is not circled by mountains. Look north from here, and you see a plain stretching northward. I had not since my arrival here felt so completely enclosed by mountains.

We saw, also for the first time, Edelweiss, which blooms in July. We first spotted it, looking wilted and forlorn in cramped plastic pots, for sale in front of the café and shop in the Passo Falzarego. It looked limp, grey and unappealing. Even later, when we saw it thriving in a flower bed in the Alpe di Siusia, it looked not small, bright, clean nor very white. Nor, as Himself remarked, despite the promise of the famous lyrics, did it seem happy to meet us. In fact, its distinctive, almost masculine, appearance is better served by its Latin name, Leontopodium, ‘lion's paw’, than it is by the Rodgers and Hammerstein song.

So much for Broadway sentimentality. I was glad to meet the original.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Fourth, Abroad

In Salzburg, of course, there is no Fourth of July. There’s simply 04.07.10 or 4 Juli. Accepting this is an adjustment a native-born and -reared American must make each year she finds herself far from barbecues and parades, fireworks and Sousa marches, awaking on the morning of a day which date has for a lifetime held specific and particular significance to discover it’s simply another day for everyone around her.

It’s not that I’m a particularly patriotic American. I left the country without regret and suffer no longings for it, save my sadness at leaving behind dear friends and family. I’ve settled, as well as is possible for me, where we have lived since and am not eager to return.

I learned, however, my first summer in Europe that I can’t simply ignore traditions that have been part of my life since childhood. That first year in Ireland, I was sent a notice by the HSE – the national health service – asking me  to ‘attend’ the outpatient radiology unit at the regional hospital in Waterford for a mammogram on 4 July.

I considered requesting another date but thought, ultimately, what would be the difference? It would be simply another Friday in Ireland, with people going to work and doing the shopping as usual. There was no reason to re-schedule the appointment, although Himself and I briefly discussed planning a party. Why bother anyway?

I remember driving, for the first time on my own, the 50 or so miles to Waterford that July morning. The middle part of the journey, between Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, passes through particularly beautiful countryside. The tree-lined River Suir and the gentle Comeragh Mountains, rising stately and green, lie on one side of the road; on the other side, rich pasture land, dotted with fine houses, rolls off toward the horizon. I negotiated the confusing road works as I approached Waterford city, found the correct lane to cross the intimidating bridge across the mouth of the Suir, wound through the ancient streets and found the hospital without getting lost. At that stage, before I had passed the Irish driving test, to have done it alone felt like my own declaration of independence.

I had the car radio tuned to RTÉ’s Lyric FM, which features an eclectic mix of classical, light classical and standards, thinking that, given the connections between America and Ireland, and the affection the Irish generally have for Americans, they would play something to mark the occasion. I was hoping for my Fourth of July favourite, ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’. Perhaps even ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. Something spirited. It wasn’t until my return trip, though, during the lunchtime request programme, that the presenter dedicated songs to mark the occasion. But instead of a rousing march or triumphant anthem, she chose the poignant path, selecting the plaintive ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ and Jay Ungar’s achingly tender ‘Ashokan Farewell’. (Which choices may reflect something of the complicated relationship between Europe and America.)

Flooded with emotion, I took a chance and stopped in Clonmel to seek out an American friend who lives there. But when I went to the shop where she works, she and her boss were involved in a time-sensitive project, too busy to talk. The connection I sought would have to wait.

'Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,' indeed.

I learned the lesson that July, and the following year Himself and I, along with my American friend from Clonmel, planned a barbecue for a few friends. As it happened, my brother the airline captain had a layover in Limerick that day, so he was able to join us. I located a collection of Sousa marches online, and, blessed with a fine warm day, we had, in our small way, a Fourth of July party. Sans fireworks, of course.

So as July approached this year, we considered, then rejected, the idea of hosting a barbecue. Life is too complicated right now. We decided instead simply to go into the Altstadt and enjoy a Sunday afternoon together in Salzburg. Before leaving, I listened to the United States Marine Band playing ‘The Stars and Stripe Forever’ – one small concession to sentimentality. Then, I having furtively wiped my eyes, we set off for the city centre.

The Salzburg Festival opens in just a few weeks, and there are even more visitors on its streets. Crossing the bridge over the Salzach and entering a platz in the Neue Stadt, we were passed by a group of young Americans, enjoying the heat of the day in shorts, tank tops and flip flops. There was no red, white and blue to be seen.

We continued on lazily, admiring Beaux Arts buildings and peering into shop windows, finding breads in the shape of elephants, stainless steel cookware, men’s watches priced far beyond our budget, tempting handmade shoes, and tracht, Austrian traditional dress. At a photographer’s window, we stop to gape at the large, arresting image of a nude woman playing the saxophone, long platinum-blonde hair and white skin against a white ground, with just a patch of black. Another group of Sunday ramblers, a man and two women with a child in stroller, stopped beside us, also staring at the photograph. From his stroller, though, the child was impressed by a second photograph in the window, that of an infant lying on the palm of an adult.

‘Die Baby, die Baby!’, he called out, over and over.

‘Ja, ja, die Baby’, his parent replied. With some relief, I assumed.

In the Mirabellgarten – the formal gardens beside the schloss built by a 17th century prince-archbishop for his mistress – the gold tulips of Easter time had been replaced by yellow pansies, marigolds, red begonias and salvia. We wandered its paths, staying in under the shady arbours where possible. The garden is where the ‘Do-Re-Mi’ scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed, and it’s popular with visitors, many of whom can be found having their pictures taken in front of the Pegasus foundation featured in the film. But it’s popular as well with ordinary Salzburgers, who sat on benches in the shade, dozing, talking or simply, I suppose, thinking, a small study of humanity.

Back on the other side of the river we sat under an umbrella in a large platz, drinking beer and watching people passing, among them a woman pushing a stroller in which sat a small terrier, its ears pricked with excitement.

‘Now I’ve seen everything,’ said Himself.

Our beers finished, we wandered in the direction of the Festival Halls, which, as it turned out, were open on the very afternoon for a free preview of the coming programme. Why not?, we asked each other, and went inside the larger of the two, the Grosses Festspielhaus. And, again through simple good luck, we found ourselves just in time to attend an hour-long free concert, a kind of sampler of coming concerts. Markus Hinterhäuser, pianist and Festival music director, played duet with another pianist, then discussed the upcoming Festival. But the real crowd pleaser was the percussion ensemble that followed, directed by Martin Grubinger and featuring a fascinating array of metal, wooden and skinned-covered surfaces –  in every shape, size and colour – designed to be beaten, hammered and otherwise struck. I’ve been wondering if my procrastination and hesitation would rob us of the chance to get a taste of the Festival. Now it seems more accessible.

Outside once again in the late-day summer heat, I looked up at the skyline of domes and steeples against the pale horizon. Salzburg is a beautiful city, and I felt alive, joyous, and very glad to be there, just one among many on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, simply taking it in, walking aimlessly and leisurely, pausing to look at art in the windows of galleries or admiring bright coloured beads in jeweller’s. We passed through the platz in front of the Dom, now nearly entirely filled with the stage and a huge bank of bleachers for the traditional Everyman performances that open the Festival. From there we passed by the giant chessboard where a game was in progress. And then on to the gem-like St Peter’s cemetery – another The Sound of Music location – with its bright flower-covered graves and painted iron grave markers.

The caretaker motioned to us as we turned toward the back of the cemetery, saying something in German. A woman standing nearby, an American, said ‘I think he means don’t go back there.’ It was true; it was nearly 7 and the gates of the cemetery were about to close. We moved toward the other gate, the woman and her companion walking near us, stopping to admire the flowers as we did.

'They’re so beautiful,’ said the other woman, also American. ‘I’ll have to keep coming back.’

I agreed. ‘It’s one of my favourite places in Salzburg. I come here every chance I get. You should see it at Easter, when the graves are all golden with daffodils.’

She looked at me, a little surprised, perhaps questioning. I said, simply, ‘We live here.’

As we parted, I again felt my good fortune

Shortly afterward, home at last, and having barbecued wurstl and opened a bottle of wine, Himself treated me to another concert, one for the Fourth of July. He whistled, in its entirety, ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’. It was a virtuoso display of just one of his many talents.

I am lucky indeed.