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

Heat

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!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lesson Learned

Like you—like most people, I imagine—I tend to see myself as kind. I like to think of myself as compassionate and willing to help. But I wonder at times—perhaps you do too—if I don’t go too far, mistaking my own neediness for helpfulness.

A few weeks ago, one wet afternoon as I wrestled my bicycle through the heavy front door of the building that houses my physical therapist, a young woman approached me. In an American accent, she asked if I knew where—holding out a piece of paper—an address was.

‘That’s the main train station,’ I said.

She nodded.

‘Well’, I said, ‘I’m not exactly sure how you get there from here, but it’s nearby. You’re not far away.’

I looked around me, over the tops of the buildings, vaguely noting the elevated tracks of the S-Bahn interurban train, not a block away, and consulted my mental map.

‘I can’t tell you exactly how to get there from here, but I know it’s off in that direction,’ I continued, pointed in the opposite direction from where the tracks headed directly toward the station, which was, as I came to recognise later, less than a block from where we stood.

In the weeks since, I’ve thought many times of the brief exchange, imagining the young woman cursing the eager but poorly informed woman who, I hope, she ignored and asked the next person she met.

(I call to mind the afternoon I wandered along the edges of Harlem, looking for the Cloisters Museum. I stopped a elderly woman, tiny under an amber felt hat, who pointed me in, I was sure, the wrong direction. After she walked off, I stopped and asked a neatly dressed younger man. As I did, the woman stood about a half a block away, watching.

‘What did he tell you?’ she demanded of me when she approached after he walked on. He had, in fact, pointed me toward to right bus. She, to her very great credit, escorted me to the bus and boarded it with me.)

In the weeks since I blithely pointed the young woman in the wrong direction, I’ve felt a nagging every time I pass the neighbourhood of the train station. I should have simply said, as Himself so often tells me, ‘I don’t know.’

But I didn’t. I tried, as always, to help. I want to be helpful. Or I want to demonstrate my knowledge. Is it, perhaps, that I want to show off?

Not long ago, I had to run an errand late on another wet afternoon. I put on my raincoat and waxed hat to cycle to the bus stop. Tent-shaped and solid black, the voluminous coat falls nearly to my ankles; the hat, also black, looks absurd, like Mary Poppins’ hat, with a silly black velvet rosette. But the coat covers my legs as I cycle and the hat’s wide brim protects my face, so, despite looking like a crow, I wear them both when I must cycle in the rain.

Our bus stop is the northern terminus of the line, so normally the bus discharges the last passengers before it turns and departs. But on this day when I boarded, already drenched by the heavy rain, the last passengers remained aboard. From the back of its double-length I could hear the bus driver’s voice rise in broken-English frustration.

‘Not this bus,’ he said.

The woman leaned in to question him further but he seemed to lapse again into German. Then she turned and walked back toward her husband, who consulted a tourist map.

‘Can I help?’ I asked brightly.

She looked at her husband and two children, about 9 and 11.

Again, I asked, ‘Can I help.’ This time, it looked as though the light dawned. I was asking in English.

‘He says we need the Number 1,’ in an Australian accent. ‘But I don’t know. . . .’ She trailed off, shrugging.

‘I know,’ I said, with genuine sympathy, thinking of how unhelpful Salzburg bus drivers can be. ‘It’s very frustrating.’ I wondered how they had ended up at the end of the line on Number 7. The Number 1 doesn’t come this direction.

The husband, backpack at his side, looked up from his map. ‘We want to go to the Messe Zentrum Park-and-Ride. It looks like it’s on this line.’

I turned it over in my mind. I was puzzled. In my many trips along the route, I’d never heard the Messe Zentrum announced as a stop. But then. . . it’s only a few hundred metres from one of the bus stops, I recalled.

‘The bus driver told me he’d tell us where the right stop is,’ said the woman.

I pushed ahead. ‘You want Messe Zentrum? Not the Europark Park-and-Ride.’

‘It’s Messe Zentrum Near the circus. We saw it this morning.’

Well, yes, there is circus there now. And we were just one—or was it two?—stops from the turn into enormous car park where its tents can be seen.

Thinking fast—proud of myself—I told them I could show them which stop. ‘It’s coming up quick,’ I said. ‘Press the “Stop” button and I’ll show you.’

With my sleeve I wiped thick fog from inside the window. ‘Look—it’s coming. See? There. Go back from the bus stop and turn up there. You’ll go the roundabout next to the motorway.’

Doubt crossed the woman’s face. ‘Is it safe?’

For the first time I hesitated. What to say?  I’m sure she could read it in my eyes and in my silence. But the bus was pulling up to the stop.

They looked at each other. ‘We’ll try it,’ he said, pushing aside his hesitation.

‘Come on, children,’ said she.

And the four of them stepped into the grey downpour.

I settled in. Across from me, a man who had just boarded wore an orange rain jacket. He looked past me. Or was he staring? Suddenly, I felt unusually self-conscious.

I turned my mind to the Australians. It was very wet. I thought of the four of them, wondering if they’d make the turn at the corner. I considered what it would be like to walk the short but ragged ground between the corner and the entrance to the Zentrum car park.

And I finally heard what she had said: The bus driver said he would tell them where the right stop was.

From the back of the bus, I looked at the driver’s reflection in the mirror. He must have watched all this and wondered at my interference. For I had interfered. They had not asked for help.

The bus ploughed on through the rain and, as I sat, the warmth of shame and doubt rose within me. What had I done? How far from the entrance to the car park to where they had left their car would they have to go?

I heard myself again, my voice too loud and overbright: ‘Can I help?’

I heard again my husband’s repeated admonishments: ‘It’s all right if you just say you don’t know.’

A few stops on I heard a stop called. I must have heard this announcement scores of times before, but it had never registered. It was the connection for Line 1 to Messe Zentrum.

What had I done? 

I don’t know the end to this story. I hope I didn’t send them too far afield. But I think of those two children, weary after a rainy day’s sightseeing, slumping a little as they stepped off the bus. I think of the woman’s hesitation when she asked, ‘Is it safe?’ And, my mind writhing with shame, I hear my voice, uninvited. ‘Can I help?’

What drives me to do this, again I ask myself. Is it that I want to make a connection? That I am lonely? That I want to boost my own sense importance. Or is it perhaps an ingrained American trait, that characteristic desire to reach out to one’s community that is, I think, actually part of the American culture?

I will say this: I swear—I promise solemnly—I will never again give directions unless I actually know what I’m talking about.

And I hope, without hope, that I don’t become part of a family legend somewhere in Australia. I hope, without hope, that a young man and a young woman don’t find themselves saying, about 10 years from now, ‘Remember that weird woman, dressed like a witch, who sent us off, tramping for an hour through the rain, one day in Salzburg?

I hope, as I say, without hope.

Wherever you are, I am truly sorry. I have learned my lesson.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Recall

After a cool, overcast week punctuated by thunderstorms and cloud bursts, it’s a sunny, calm and mild morning on Katzenstraße. I was up early to feed Jimi, the elderly cat of our neighbours, who are on holiday. He followed me, wobbling slightly as he does these days, into the gentle warmth of the early sun. Now, from the kitchen window in our first-floor apartment, I can see the brown-green fishing pond, which lies behind the houses across the street from us. No wind ruffles its smooth surface, which reflects the grey-green foliage of the trees that line the bank.

It’s a little after nine, yet the street is quiet still. A few walkers pace the path round the pond, their Nordic polesvery popular here—rhythmically marking their stride. A cyclist, red shirt flashing through the interstices between the houses, rolls by. The expanse of garden below the window is quiet; the blackbirds have settled into midsummer silence. Only a few birds chatter in the tall trees of the wood beside us.

In this quiet of this Saturday morning, I’m put in mind of our neighbourhood in California, in a mid-century development in the Newbury Park area of Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles and several thousand miles from Salzburg. How many thousand miles? I wondered yesterday but neglected to look it up.

I recall Saturday mornings in Newbury Park, especially summer Saturday mornings. The sun blazes on wide roads that meet, mostly, in orderly squared-off intersections. I had never realised how wide are the neat asphalts streets in that suburban neighbourhood until I moved to Europe. Katzenstraße, for instance, isn’t as wide as our driveway in California.

At half-past nine on a July Saturday morning in Newbury Park, the sun glares off the asphalt pavement of those wide streets and glints off the chrome and glass and metallic paint of the cars that are beginning to fill them. The early-morning (first light!) garage sales are well under way, with shoppers peaking about now, as the temperature creeps toward 90. (That’s about 30, for you in Europe.) Women pick up old crockery and examine the undersides of faded chairs; men pick through piles of books or yard tools or the detritus of a home office, watched with studied reserve by those eager to unload the goods. Car doors slam and an engine starts and another car joins the stream cruising the street.

Mockingbirds chatter their loud, complex calls, elaborate as blackbirds’ song if not as musical. The shouts of the Little League coaches and parents fill the air in the field behind our house, occasionally drowned out by the roar of gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Noise, as well as swelling heat, seeps through windows, inching under and around our blinds, which remain drawn against the sun. All the same, harsh light creeps along walls and floors, slashing the shadows. The neighbourhood is wide awake, and, no matter how late one or another of us would like to sleep, the sound of its routines breach our walls.

Lying in the coolness of the bedroom this morning, here on quiet Katzenstraße, I saw in my mind’s eye, as in a Google satellite view, the old neighbourhood. As if I hovered overhead, I saw the streets in their modified grid, block after regular block of broad, squat houses with low-peaked, pale tiled roofs. Illuminated by the relentless Southern California light, each was surrounded by concrete and grass, patios of paving stone, sprawling pink Queen Elizabeth roses, lilac agapanthus and brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea. I saw the shimmer rise from the streets and, from high above, looked at people moving about, doll-like, in the glare of the morning. A few joggers braved the heat, groceries were loaded into the back of SUVs, a man, body sleek and tanned, dove into the crystalline blue of a swimming pool. It seemed, for a few minutes, as clear and as immediate as if I were there.

It’s been four years now since I left our home there; I haven’t been back. The quiet neighbourhood where Katzenstraße is located looks very different. The heat does not, at least this summer, shimmer as it rises from asphalt. Time rushes on; what we left in California, then later in Ireland, is remote, the images dreamlike.

But every so often, like dreams, they return, and I inhabit briefly that strange half world of memory made vivid by imagination.

Even this posting is fuelled by imagination. It has been three weeks since the bright July morning I began writing it. Time again has been compressed. Mornings spent in German classes, pressing work and a slow-to-heal back injury have kept me from posting here. So on this rainy August afternoon, I am compelled to try to recall what it was I had recalled, filling in the gaps with imagination.

Imagination is sometimes the stuff of life.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Question of Settling

I suppose the logical question is what did we do for the Fourth of July yesterday.

Nothing.

I worked, trying to finish a rambling, disjointed post (see above) before moving on to my German lessons. Himself was at the office, playing mediator between his European team and the expectations of their American counterparts who, of course, were all out of the office. We roasted potatoes and a sea trout for dinner and afterwards took a walk in the fading light, walking first under the trees along the pale green-blue River Saalach as it tumbled northward toward its convergence with the River Salzach, then turning back along the Salzach to home.

There were no fireworks. There will be a splendid display during Salzburg’s Rupertikirtag festival in September. We’ll wait for those. Nor I did not pull out the U.S. Marine Corps Band CD. No Stars and Stripes Forever for me, not this year. It was day like many others, a day on which we were grateful for dry weather, a comfortable place to live and loving companionship.

All this seems to answer another question, one that was put to me all the time while we lived in Ireland: ‘Are you settled yet?’

An unsettling question, that. A question that’s nearly impossible for me to answer. I suppose I’m a kind of unsettled individual, at best. I’m a drifting sort of person, unsure and aimless at the best of times, a girl who is still waiting to grow up, fighting all the same growing old.

An American acquaintance in Ireland, someone I knew causally over the two and a half years we were there, told me as we were preparing to leave that it was just as well. ‘You’ve never settled here,’ she said.

When I told him, Himself was indignant on my behalf. After all, we had our house, which we had designed and furnished with care. We lived among a network of a large extended family. We attended weddings, christenings, First Communions and, particularly, funerals. We voted. We had gym memberships and were greeted on the streets and when we went into shops. Who was to say I had not settled?

Yet, in a way, she was right. Such intimacy as we developed with others remained within the family. In some ways, we were waiting for life to begin. And then, almost suddenly, we uprooted and moved to Salzburg.

Have I settled in Salzburg, then? Can I even define what that would be?

Skirting the question yet again, I think back to when we moved to our house, our first house, in Thousand Oaks. Himself envied me, he said, because I seemed to take to our new neighbourhood at once, in a way he never did. It was the archetypal California ranch-style neighbourhood of irregular blocks punctuated by cul-de-sacs, neat sidewalks bordered by grassy ‘parking strips’, a neighbourhood very much like the Sunnyvale, California, neighbourhood I grew up in. It was so like our childhood home that my sister said on seeing it for the first time, wonder in her voice, ‘You live in Beverly Cleary’s house.’

That suburban community with it tidy, mid-century stucco houses surrounded by rectangular lawns and patios was far from the dwellings in the small Irish towns where Himself spent much of his youth. It was further still the rolling farmland where he spent the rest of it, the same countryside where I, apparently, failed to settle during our time there.

And now we live in a flat at the edge of a central European city, in a neighbourhood that cannot be termed urban, rural or suburban, having elements of all three. When we arrived, we had few reference points, architectural, social, cultural or familial. My circle of acquaintances is small; it is through good luck or magnanimous fortune that we have wonderful neighbours who speak fluent English, else I would have been cut off nearly completely.

And, yet, oddly, I have settled, if by ‘settling’ one means a sense of feeling grounded in my surroundings. More and more, when I look out the window of the flat or of the bus, or take in the landscape as I cycle to the market, I feel at peace with the scene around me.

I struggle, naturally, with learning German. Even though I make my way around the city comfortably, being unable to speak fluently affects me at odd times. When the phone rings – which it does rarely – I answer wondering whether I will be able to understand the purpose of the call. If it is Himself on the other end, my tension immediately relaxes. I put off making appointments, wanting to avoid those awkward exchanges in stumbling German with the receptionists who answer the phone. (Once one woman, frustrated with my incomprehension, hung up on me. I took a deep breath and called back to begin again.) I worry about what could happen if I found myself in a real emergency.

Sunday I participated in a 5K Frauenlauf – a fun-run – as part of a team from The English Center, an English bookshop and language school. Standing in line before the start of the race, I asked the woman in front of me, in German, the time. Disconcertingly, she answered in German, and I was too ashamed to admit I didn’t understand what she said. I am used to hearing German over loudspeakers, but I long for the day when rather than sounding merely interesting, it will be also comprehensible.

But still, simply participating in the race, albeit as part of a team of English speakers, created another tie between me and the community. All along the route, Salzburgers stood and cheered as we passed.

‘Bravo, bravo’, an old man shouted as I turned the corner on which he stood. That I certainly understood.

I’m not suggesting that by doing the Frauenlauf I am now settled. It was a single morning; afterwards I came home and slept, nursing the hip I’d thrown out along the way. I rose the next morning – the morning of the Fourth of July – and went about my business. Alone, as usual, for most of the day, I limped, my hip still sore, and wondered how I will manage the medical system here to have it adjusted. In America, in Ireland, I would know how to find a chiropractor and how to make an appointment. It’s not so simple here. It’s an example, however small, of how I have not ‘settled’.

All the same, that the Fourth of July, a date that should have resonated and made me homesick, passed without much more than a ripple in my awareness suggests an important, if subtle, shift in my consciousness. Being settled, like being happy, is a fluid state. I can’t define or describe it; I’m not sure I even know it.

All I can do is refer to the lightness in my being when I see the sun brighten behind the green wood outside the window. Feel the rightness in the sight of the corner of a familiar door reflected in the wardrobe mirror. Or know comfort in hanging heavy clean towels on the line. Sometimes, this simple peace is enough. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Venice

I don’t know why I bought that copy of the then-recently released Jan Morris edition The Stones of Venice in 1980. I found it at Cosmic Aeroplane, a quirky, counterculture booklovers paradise (and headshop) in Salt Lake City and, beguiled perhaps by the enthusiasm of the book dealer, paid money I couldn’t afford for the lovely hardbound edition, its jacket a wash of pale blue, a detail from a watercolour of Venice.

Studying Victorian English literature, I had been reading, after a fashion, John Ruskin and trying to incorporate Criticism as one subject in a faltering doctoral programme. But I never made much progress with Ruskin’s dense, meandering prose. He remained an icon to be wondered about rather than a companion of the mind.

For years, though, the book, rarely opened, sat under a stack of ‘art books’ in a pile, strategically placed on a living room table to signal our ‘good taste’. Occasionally, I thumbed its pages, looking at the exquisite drawings and watercolours, but its thick ranks of type remained unpenetrated.

In truth, I never thought much about Venice. I remained nearly completely ignorant of its history, its location at the moon-shaped curve of land at the top of the Adriatic sea, of the fact that it is a series of islands, filled in by early settlers in the mouth of a broad lagoon, its buildings constructed on timber piers driven into the sea bed. I thought of it, when I thought of it at all, as merely another Italian city, shorthand for Art. Thousands of miles from where I lived, Venice was as remote as Asia, another stop on the tourist cruise I was destined never to take.

But I kept the book, one of many reminders of a part of myself I had hoped for but failed to nourish. Its dust jacket faded, developing tiny tears that lengthened as the years passed. Its edges were no longer smooth; dog-eared corners flared outward, spoiling the elegant coated paper, midway under the pile of disregarded books.

Preparing to ship our goods from California to Ireland, I culled a couple of hundred books – perhaps more – that I had kept since my university days. For some reason, though, I packed The Stones of Venice. From there it made the journey with us to Salzburg. So it was, when we decided to visit Venice, I unearthed it from the boxes still stacked under the stairs to take a look at what Ruskin was up to. I had no idea what I would find when I sat down to read it. I thought only that I should try, at long last, to justify the long-ago impulse purchase.

Ruskin had taken his new wife Effie to Venice in 1851 for their honeymoon. While she immersed herself in its social life, Ruskin took measuring tape, pen and paper and set out to catalogue its Gothic architecture, writing as he did a treatise, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, on why he considered the style, which was to be displaced by Renaissance, the apotheosis of artistic achievement. The Stones of Venice is his painstakingly detailed accounting of Gothic architecture in Venice, in which he minutely describes arches, windows, balconies, columns and capitals, backed by measurements, charts, sketches and diagrams.

Soon I was immersed in a welter of detail in Ruskin’s attempts to classify stylistic differences in architectural details.  Reading, I took notes. I looked up definitions. I made lists of his criteria for the Gothic. I relied on him to set the guideposts for what to see in Venice – and how to see it.

And, when I first saw Venice, I tried to view it through Ruskin’s lens. But his attempt to classify and explain the mystery of Venice succeeds only partially. For Venice is surreal. Meticulous as his drawings and measurements are, they capture only a sliver of its presence.

Coming out of the train station into the haze of a summer’s day more heated than clear, we found the air dense with noise. Following instructions sent by our hotel, we wheeled our luggage over uneven pavement and up a steep bridge over one of the smaller canals amid crowds of other tourists and ordinary people of all ages, some stopping to talk or to take pictures or gaze in windows.

After checking in, we again set out, using the Blue Guide – my top choice of guide books for depth of information – exploring the Canneregio district, where our hotel was located.

Finding our way out of the crowds and into narrow, less-travelled calles and campos, crossing narrow canals and walking along the fondamentas, we wandered narrow lanes, at times only wide enough for three or four to walk abreast. From one window high overhead, an old woman leaned out, spitting, aiming for those who passed below her. From most, thought, it was laundry that hung, strung in colourful pennants across the passageways. Bright sun cut swaths of nearly colourless light in otherwise shadowed corners, arching and slashing designs on the pavement, sometimes cutting through iron railings to etch curling motifs. The walls were worn, bricks exposed, stucco peeling like old wallpaper, discordant colours jarring.

Then, at the end of a low archway, half in shadows, the wall would suddenly fall away and water lap at the edge of the pavement. We would find ourselves at the edge a narrow rio, the smallest of waterways that run between the canals. Sun glinting from the waters’ surface dazzled. Rippling light danced across walls, shimmered gracefully on walls, floated like thistledown on air currents.

Alleys led to narrow, high-ridged bridges that fed us onto fondamentas paralleling narrow rios, that, around corners opened onto Campos. Everywhere was the noise of motors, shattering the air between buildings as boatmen and -women navigated the passages, revved engines, puttered, idled. Boats of all sizes lay moored along the edge or, heavily laden with machinery or goods or people, churned the green water, which frothed effervescent with white. Then, around the next corner, we would cross a bridge and stare along glass-smooth water, its surface swelling, flexing solid yet fluid, reflecting the blue of the sky or of a boat cover.

Everywhere, colour overwhelmed with its garish brightness. Deep ochre and faded yellows, deep forest-greens were cut across by brilliant fuchsia and cerise. Dingy, neglected churches, walls faded to cream, were slashed by the shadows that cut diagonally across the campos they fronted, obscuring the statues that surmounted their facades. Walls were broken by balconies and punctuated with worn inlaid medallions; bronzes ornamented doors; small statues perched over doorways. Everywhere the walls and pavements seemed ancient enough and porous enough to conceal the minutes, hours, days, months, years and centuries they contained, their history swelling inside crevices, time enveloped by their depths.

These depths threaten to spill out through peeling layers of faded paint and eroded stucco, revealing worn brick and stone. Ruskin recalls the splendour of the city at the height of its glory in the 14th century, this jewel, ‘The Most Serene Republic of Venice’, its palaces glittering with white marble, gilded and inlaid with porphyry and serpentine. The centuries passed; its surfaces decayed; its beauty lies now not in precious surfaces but in its contrasts of surface and colour, of light and shade, its rough textures slashed by bright graffiti or startlingly brilliant flowers tumbling from window boxes and over walls.

With its mass pinned into the surrounding lagoon, the city seems to float. And, after several days of boarding crowded, lurching vaporetti that criss-crossed the canals’ churning waters, or waiting to board on bobbing, moored platforms, and, on the third day of our visit, the longer boat journey to the outlying islands, I seemed to feel it float. I had the sensation of rocking, even when I was at rest, especially while lying flat on the bed. (This phenomenon, is apparently associated with frequent boat journeys and, fortunately, it subsided in me about three days after we returned.)

‘The city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone,’ writes Erica Jong of Venice. It does seem reflected in a thousand fragmented mirrors. Everywhere you turn, water reflects the city’s colours, textures, buildings and people. So more than most cities, Venice seems never at rest, never static. Its pavements teem with people; its waterways churn with vessels of all descriptions. The disparate colours and textures of its buildings jostle so the eye roves restlessly over them. Intense light drains colour from near-deserted calles that then slide under shadowed archways; either way, spaces seem mysterious. Nothing is clear; nothing reveals its true being. There are no straight lines; all is distorted by time or light or water.

Experience seems to fragment too. Light, colour, noise, the interminable rocking of vaperetti, shifting crowds threading through thronged streets, beggars and hawkers in their midst, delivery men wheeling trolleys, all combine to shatter continuity. Life flickers, shattering, like the flickering effect one feels while moving under a flashing strobe light. Unlike Ruskin, I could not contain the experience; no more than I can catalogue its buildings, can I catalogue the days and night we spent there. I could write of the art we saw – the magnificent Titian Assumption of the Virgin at the church of the Frari, the jewel-like Bellini altarpiece in the same church, so lovely I felt a physical tug of the heart when I saw it, the lively and beautiful canvases of the Stations of the Cross in the church of San Polo by the younger Tiepolo, and, of course, the soaring mosaics of San Marco.

I could recount of disappointment at what we could not see, especially at the Accademia gallery, under restoration, where many of the most remarkable works were not on view. As with all of our trips, there is more to tell than I can write, more beauty than I can capture. But, especially with Venice, the experience is refracted through a hundred thousand bits of colour, movement, light, texture, and image, a week-long mosaic of being, irreducible, impossible to discipline into an orderly march of words marshalled into ranks of sentences and paragraphs, grammar and syntax. It shimmers, it moves, it metamorphoses, and, as with life itself, what one would say about it in one sentence would be a lie in the next.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Midsummer's Evening

Yesterday, midsummer, the Solstice, a lovely warm day, though threatening at times, it warmed up toward evening. Himself and I had dinner on the veranda, which practically shimmered in the unusual heat. We ate late, as usual, not sitting down before 8 or possibly 8:30. Afterward, enchanted by the gold light still striking the tall slender trunks of the trees in the wood, beguiled by the bright patches on the grass, the thin blue of the sky, I suggested we take a walk. We set off sometime after 9. I had my camera in my back pocket, but by the time we reached the fishing pond, the shadows were so long that the path was in twilight. Still the light off the pond, the pumpkin-coloured house across the way mirrored neatly in its brown-green surface, was beautiful.

We walked, as usual, to the Spitz, where the River Saalach pours into the Salzach, right at the border with Germany. There we stopped to watch the last fading pink in the pale sky over the confluence. A couple of young women had a small fire going in the sand, preparing, I would say, for a Solstice celebration. The thin blue smoke drifted over the rivers’ surface, mist I first thought, but no, smoke. It was too warm for mist, I suppose.

Across the Salzach, on the far side of the river, a slightly larger party was going, with two or three small fires and a band of smaller ones surrounding the group, candles or lantern, I would say.

‘Is that person naked,’ Himself asked.

We squinted through the dimming light. There were bodies as well as flames reflected in the river’s surface, but

‘No,’ he said. ‘I guess not.’

It wouldn’t have surprised us though, not really. It seemed a New Agey kind of group, gathering, no doubt, to mark the Solstice. Nakedness would not be out of line. No bother.

We walked along, companionable in a new-found way, sometimes holding hands, sometimes just touching. Just before we got to the bend in the path, the bend that’s just where a wooden bridge crosses a stream, we met another couple coming our way, younger, white patches on his pants just reflecting the last remnants of light.

‘Grüß Gott,’ they said.

‘Grüß Gott,’ we replied.

There was companionableness in their greeting: often in these walks others don’t acknowledge those they pass. But it was a sacred time, and others who were out in it were more than passers-by; they were fellow partakers of the magic.

The path, now overhung by dense foliage on both sides, became a tunnel. We rounded the bend, just by the bridge, and

‘Look!’ Said Himself. ‘A firefly!’

So there was. And another, and more, and more and more.

We stopped, enchanted. Tiny green-white stars, untethered from the heavens, flitted or hovered in among the bushes. We moved on a few paces and stopped again. Standing on the wooden bridge, staring into the water below, we could still see them, as one or two drifted out beyond the leafy banks.

‘I’ve only seen one firefly before, once, last summer,’ I said.

Himself said he’d only seen them once before, in Germany, years ago, before we met, walking with two young women in the early hours of a morning. ‘And up to no good,’ he added.

‘Are there fireflies in Ireland?’ I wondered.

‘No.’

We crossed the bridge and once more were walking parallel to the Salzach, trees along one side, water reflecting occasional lights from the opposite bank on the other. A small white waterfowl drifted north along the tide. The onion-domed steeple of the Bergheim church glowed pale gold. On its hill far above, Maria Plain was illuminated too.

On our right, in the low brushes, more fireflies glowed. All along the way, they danced or, occasionally, hovered in pairs, a few inches apart. We turned right onto the path leading through the park still watching their pale gleam.

‘It makes you understand why people believed in Sprites,’ said Himself.

It does. It was like scores and then more scores and more scores of tiny fairy lights, held by the Unseen, processing in the dark. One could imagine an invisible but parallel world, with the Little People going about their business, moving through the night.

Then – a crash in the bushes and something larger ran parallel and dashed across the path. Barely discernible but not invisible, another dark shape followed. Young deer, panicked no doubt by our voices, rushed to safety.

Then, passing the park maintenance building, we were suddenly under the harsh glare of man-made light.

‘Every building needs a fat florescent bulb,’ said Himself, grumbling.

Soon though, we once more entered the unlit dirt track running round the fishing pond. The fireflies still flitted in the dark leaves that bordered our walk. Down around the bottom of the track we went, skirting the bike and long pole of a fisherman, the lone holdout in the dark. We climbed the brief overgrown path between the wood and the last house on the street, still watching fireflies.

‘Look,’ he said, stopping suddenly. ‘Look at how green they are. Like emeralds. Greener than emeralds!’

I looked. In fact, they didn’t look as green as emeralds to me. They looked pale green, probably reflecting the light of the leaves.

But I said nothing as we turned into our driveway and climbed the stairs to the flat.

Magic is magic, after all.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In Which I Am Nearly Made A Liar

Last night, Himself and I sat on the veranda after dinner, watching the restless sky, which seethed with pewter-grey clouds.

‘Look,’ he said. ‘Swallows!’

‘Sure,’ said I. ‘Make a liar of me.’

And I told him about the day’s post, written just hours before, in which I had said no swallows swoop and soar over our garden.

But I looked up and, sure enough, overhead flew a dozen, maybe a score, of swallows. They passed high above, darted into the silver mist, and circled briefly over the towering trees at the wood’s edge, and disappeared. Perhaps the storm and heavy rain had driven them from the river. Who knows?

Far from making a liar of me, their passage underscored my point.

For though we are less than a kilometre from the river, they didn’t linger here. The swallows dance no dance for us; we are just part of the patchwork of green, brown, grey and dun, the maze of concrete, asphalt, stucco and brick, over which they pass. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Summer Skies

While it would be gross fabrication to say I miss the U.S., it would be mere exaggeration to say I am homesick for Ireland. We followed the Queen’s recent visit with uncanny fascination, surprised at the waves of emotion that overcame us at the reconciliation and mutual respect that arose from the ceremonies. I regretted that I could not stand near the motorway running between Cashel and Cork to see her motorcade pass – until I realised they made the journey by helicopter. Still, in my mind’s eye, I stood at our sitting room window in Tipperary and saw – across the pastures of Tincurry – her Range Rover glide through the landscape, past the gaze of Galtymore.

Likewise, we would have liked to have been there to see the crowds welcoming Obama, though, as it happened, we were in Italy during his visit. As well, when Tipperary recently beat Cork, its long-standing nemesis, in the first test of the summer-long hurling national championship, we wished we could have been watching the match from the comfort of the Garryroan sitting room.

Those are public occasions, of course. The twinges of nostalgia, those passing moments of longing, more often come in the odd, private moment. Weeding the garden in the stillness of an overcast afternoon, the breeze soft and pregnant with rain, the clear trill of blackbirds the loudest sound I hear, I am put in mind the long, overgrown garden at the back of my mother-in-law’s house. Looking up, I notice the swell of currents and ripening raspberries on the bush, and I wish, once more, that she could have seen our garden here.

I recall also the low rolling hills of Ireland, green fields cross hatched by deeper green hedgerows and grey clouds swelling on the horizon. Perhaps the memory is triggered by a photo; perhaps it comes suddenly to my imagination. The Austrian landscape is beautiful, its wide open meadows spreading against the soaring Alps breathtaking. The ancient onion-domed steeples and charming villages, dignified in these vast spaces, still astonish me. But my response to the Irish landscape, whether imagined or seen, is instinctual, as if primordial. It’s the quickening recognition that draws one toward a long-missed loved one.

It’s not just the landscape I miss, of course. I think of languorous warm Sunday afternoons, when, dinner dishes done, we wander aimlessly. Waiting, perhaps, for the Sunday match to begin, we sit in the glassed-in porch of my mother-in-law’s house, where, overheated by the welcome sun, acrid dust rising from the elderly brown cushions competes with the sharp scent of geraniums. Or we drift to the long tunnel of the polythene house, where the interior temperature rises a good 10 degrees higher than the cool afternoon. Flying insects ping against its taut surface; the air is rank with humus and sweet with ripe peaches and apricots. Rusted tools, rough twine, unspooled in irregular loops, faded boxes and broken crockery litter the tottering timber table. A drumming flutter beats against the plastic in the corner as a thrush, frantic, finds her way out the opening at the far end.

Later, in the long evening, we sit outside, if we’re lucky, to watch the colour drain from the light over the tips of the towering hedges. We try to distinguish the music of the thrush from the melody of the blackbird. Overhead, swallows and swifts dance their soaring song, filling the sky with swooping arabesques, their high chattering cries hanging in the air. They fill me with contentment.

We see no swallows from our veranda in Salzburg. I spotted, last summer, a few over the Salzach as I cycled along it in the evening. They flitted over the river, dancing from current to current just above the water, their cries muffled by the roar of the water. But they do not dance over our garden.

So it was with exhilaration I listened to the high shrill twittering of a sky full of swallows above the basilica in Padua. They soared too over the campos and canals of Venice, filling the heaven with their shrieks, weaving an elegant ballet against the fading blue light, blue reflected and intensified by the mirror-like waters below. In the heat of an Italian evening, I saw the swallows and thought of Ireland and home.

View of the Galtee Mountains from Garryroan, South Tipperary, Ireland
Photo by Lorraine Seal

Monday, June 6, 2011

Giotto in Padua

In February, we made a trip to Rome in celebration of our 25th anniversary. To celebrate my  60th birthday, I requested a trip to Venice, a city I never imagined I’d have a chance to visit and of which I had few mental images.

Venice has the advantage of being within driving distance of Salzburg, something over five hours. Rather than make the whole journey in a day, we booked four nights in Venice, and then, working backwards, I booked a night in Sirmione, one of dozens of towns and villages that dot the shores of Lago di Garda, the large Alpine lake in the north of Italy, and another night in Padua, which lies less than a hour west of Venice. I had left one night open, the last night of the week and, at the urging of our sister-in-law, Moyra, we decided to spend it in Verona on our return journey.

Venice, Padua and Verona are cities associated in my mind with the plays of Shakespeare, with literature I haven’t necessarily read, and with the ghosts of art history lectures decades ago. It was then I fell in love with medieval and early Renaissance Western art with little expectation I would ever see the masterpieces in situ.

So it was with taut nerves and hard-to-contain excitement that I waited with about twenty others to be admitted to the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua to see the cycle of frescoes painted by Giotto for the ruling family of Padua in their private chapel. Depicting scenes from the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, from the life of Anne, her mother, and from the life of Christ, the cycle was completed in 1305. It is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Western art. 

An early master, Giotto bridges the divide between the stiffer, hierarchical figures painted against gold ground that mark medieval work and the opening up of perspective with naturalistic settings and more lifelike figures that heralded the coming of the Renaissance. Put plainly, he was one of the artists who opened our eyes so we could see the world differently.

The high, round vault of the chapel in Padua is painted deep blue with a regular pattern of gold stars. Across the ceiling and down the walls patterned bands of colour divide the space into panels, each of which frames a different scene from Mary’s life, so the whole is viewed like a picture book. They are lovely; the colours, both rich and soft, are varied. Giotto shows technical skill, too. The modelling of the drapery carefully rendered to indicate the solidity of the flesh, bone and muscle beneath. Backgrounds are simple but there is early use of perspective, so the depth of a scene in shown. Decorative borders under some of the panels are painted with such skill that they appear as if carved from wall.

But what draws one to the paintings is the humanness of the figures. Faces are beautiful and expressive. Tears stream down the mothers’ faces in the scene depicting the massacre of the innocents. The faces of Mary, her companions and John the Baptist are anguished as they cradle the body of the dead Christ, disposed from the cross. Over their heads, tiny angels mourn, arms spread in agony or clutched to their faces. In these faces, the artist captures vulnerability, volatility, softness and beauty.
Giotto, The Lamentation, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Still, Giotto’s naturalism is not the realism of the later Renaissance and Baroque. The figures are charming and lifelike in the way of beautifully drawn picture book. They lack the full physicality and complete individualisation of painting that would follow in later centuries. However, like a child, I wanted to study every small detail, to hold them in my mind, to somehow own them though my first-hand experience of them. I love the translucence of the water that laps around Jesus’ legs as he stands in the Sea of Galilee while John baptises him. I love the delicately overlapping feathers in the angels’ wings and the softness of the women’s faces. Since I first was introduced to these works, in slides and four-colour pictures over thirty years ago, I have wanted to be in their presence.

Giotto, The Kiss of Judas, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Frescoes are created by mixing pigment in plaster that is painted onto the surface of a wall, so they are chemically bound to it. This gives them durability, but they can be damaged by exposure to the elements, in particular salt. The frescos of Giotto in Padua are still in place more than seven hundred years – nearly three-quarters of a millennium – after they were created. Yet they have suffered some damage; to protect them from the effects of humidity caused by respiration, only twenty-five people at one time are admitted, and then for only fifteen minutes. All too soon for me, our fifteen minutes were up, and we were escorted out, passing on our way the next group of twenty-five waiting to be ushered in.

So Himself and I came out of the dim chapel into the heat and glare of a May afternoon in Padua. Before us stretched the week in Venice, where we would see many more landmark paintings and many more masterpieces of art. Seeing the Giotto frescoes was but one dream fulfilled. I can’t hold them in memory as acutely as I would like: to write this, I referred to images online, pale imitations of the originals that can only hint at their power.

I am lucky to have had the chance to worship at their shrine, inconceivably so. Little by little, I am learning to see the world differently.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Spy at Another Site

Three months ago, I was asked to contribute to NileGuide, an travel planning site with on-the-ground 'Local Experts' in cities around the world. One of the reasons the Spy has been quiet is that writing for NileGuide has absorbed more time than I realised it would.

This is not to say I'm abandoning The Spy. These pages represent my personal commitment to myself. However, because of my silence here, this is what I've been up to on the NileGuide site.

Another American Voice in Austria

I love this enthusiasm, verve and wit of this guy's look at Austrian life.He's in Vienna, and he loves living in Austria as much as I do. I wish I had his energy!