Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Year On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 18, 2011


Three and a half years ago, I left Southern California willingly, even eagerly, happy to embrace the softer, as I thought, purer light of the northern latitudes, pleased to leave  behind the brittle glare of a too-harsh sun. I longed for the more subtle palette of colours under the pale blue sky, the silver mists hanging over fields of every shade of green, the wisps of cloud caught on the low-slung, heath-covered hills of Tipperary. Though I cherished the jagged Santa Monica Mountains as the sun gilded them rose-gold at sunset, I didn’t mind leaving behind the torpor of late August, with its shimmers of heat hovering over softened asphalt.

Here in Salzburg, light and colour are closer that of Ireland. I’ve grown used to its subtleties through the changing seasons. A softer, pastel blue sky cushioned with thick full clouds has become the norm.

So it was with a jolt of recognition that Himself and I stood on Via Adda in Rome last week, gaping at a sky of brilliant blue, a blue I’ll call cerulean, a seductive deep rich blue. Its depth of colour spread from horizon to horizon, unmoderated by clouds. It was a sky the breadth and depth of which we were used to seeing over Los Angeles.

Which only makes sense. The Los Angeles region shares with Rome a Mediterranean climate and ecosystem. Standing on the street in Rome, we felt at home. Across from us, deep green foliage tumbled over a tall mottled sienna-coloured wall. Around us, trees filled with oranges and lemons grew even more profusely, it seemed, than in our former California neighbourhood.

We were in Rome to celebrate our 25th anniversary, the first visit for each of us. Though I had immersed myself in reading Roman history and the excellent Blue Guide to Rome, I had formed only vague impressions of what to expect. As it turned out, the reality was overwhelming, simultaneously familiar and foreign. We were blessed by mild temperatures—in the mid-teens—clear skies and sunny days. In the evenings, a sliver of the new moon gradually waxed, the Cheshire cat’s smile growing brighter against the luminous violet-blue night as the week progressed.

We tramped sidewalks and steps, roamed the Forum and the Coliseum, climbed the dome of St Peter’s, from which we stood looking down into the luxury of the hidden Vatican estate. We lost ourselves in the collections of the Capitoline and Massimo and in the crowds surging up Via del Corso on the Sunday evening darkness, shops still open.

There was an element of pilgrimage as I came face to face with works I studied decades ago as an unworldly student of art history on the brick-built campus of UCLA. Last week I trembled as we waited to enter the Borghese Gallery at nine a.m., the first entrance allowed. As it happened, it was a quiet morning and, in my eagerness, I had positioned myself at the head of the small queue. So I led the procession up the stone steps, my eyes misting unaccountably as I climbed. So too did I spontaneously tear up as we entered St Peter’s and stood before the Pieta behind its sheltering glass. I don’t know why Michelangelo’s famous work had that effect on me; it isn’t my sentimental favourite in any way. Yet it was moving to be in its presence.

We sought out dozens of objects of adoration during the pilgrimage, many of them in churches: The mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore; Michelangelo’s Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli; the frescoes ascribed to Giotto in Santa Maria d’Aracoeli; the Raphael fresco on a pier in shadowy nave. We tracked down as many Caravaggios as we could, going from church to church on increasing aching feet to do so. In most of the churches, we pushed through crowds to see them. However, in Sant’Angostino, we stood in awe before perhaps the loveliest Caravaggio we saw, Madonna di Loreto, virtually alone.

I stood with binoculars picking out the details on Trajan’s column, dimly recalling lectures in Roman art from all those years ago. Also brought back to consciousness was the astonishing dome of the Pantheon, and the profusion of Bernini sculptures throughout the city.

So we gorged on art, seeing works I had waited most of a lifetime to see in person, many of which Himself was encountering for the first time. But though we can take away those images in memory, as well as in reproductions, they do not make up the magic of a visit to Rome.

Even without visiting a single gallery or museum, without wearing ourselves out trying to put art and history into context—which we do because we’re both temperamentally disposed to—we would have loved Rome for its freshness of spirit and sophistication. I loved the swagger of Rome’s men and women, the way they walked confidently, heads high, feet placed securely. I loved the audacity of style of dress. I loved the voluble, loud, expressive, incessant chatter heard everywhere—in the street, on buses, in restaurants and shops, the hallways of museums, coming from doorways—everywhere. On a crowded tramcar, a someone asked a question one day, evidently enquiring about the right stop. Everyone—all apparently strangers to the man and to each other—joined a heated conversation that continued after he got off. That would not happen here in Salzburg, nor in Ireland, nor, I venture, in Los Angeles.

We loved too the visual sophistication, the elegant motifs painted on the sides of villas and walls, the ceiling paintings and mosaics, the rich warm earth tones that the Mediterranean sun illuminates so brilliantly. After the grey stone buildings in the green Irish landscape and the more stolid wood-beamed architecture of the Austrian Alps, it was a delight to see warm brick and stucco enlivened by colour and embellished with swirling arabesques. Interiors everywhere were covered with murals, green poured out of window boxes, lemons and oranges glowed from the green foliage of trees seen over garden walls. The city seemed alive with colour and design.

We admired as well the Romans’ enthusiasm for eating out in the evening. We made the practice, after a couple of false starts, of going back to our hotel, away from the tourist centres, to rest briefly before going to a later dinner in nearby neighbourhood restaurants. It was only at 8 or 8:30, we noticed, they began to fill with Italians. When they did, how lively the dining rooms became. Clearly Romans take their food seriously, but even more important, it seemed, was the conversation and enjoyment of their companions. This became our night-time entertainment; there was no need to seek out a pub or club. Back at the hotel, exhausted by the day’s walking, I quickly fell asleep.

It was a wonderful week.

After 25 years of marriage, Himself and I have made some unorthodox compromises to deal with our differences. We both like window seats on airplanes, and my in-flight restlessness disturbs him. In consequence, when we can, we sit in different rows, each with our own window seat. So it was when we left Rome last Saturday, on a sunny, mild afternoon. I craned my neck into the window, rapt by the turquoise-green Mediterranean as the plane banked away from the airport. Realising my seatmate also wanted to see the view, I leaned back and looked sidelong as the green receded. Then the aircraft broke through the ceiling above. Below us, all was irregular white, a vast snow field of clouds. My seatmate turned back to his book and I to my magazine.

Just over an hour later, the captain was welcoming us to Munich. The temperature, he said, was three degrees. My seatmate and I looked at each other, eyes wide, rueful. Then we shrugged and laughed.

‘That’s why you go to Rome,’ I said, then turned again to look at the flat, grey light beyond the window.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Another Sign of Spring

Jimmy the cat, at 17 years old the Elder of Katzenstraße, is prowling the garden, examining the undersides of shrubs, nose to the ground. Jimmy hates the cold and snow. For months now, he has contemplated the world from a window sill atop a radiator. More than the emergence of a groundhog, his willing exploration of nature must announce the coming of Spring.

Hoffnung auf Frühling

We returned from Rome late Saturday night. As we landed in Munich I could see a wet runway and leaden horizon, an ominous change after a week of sunlight and a brilliant blue skies. Fields stretched away in the growing dusk, dark brown and dun. As the autobahn climbed toward Salzburg, the brown changed to dingy white, barely perceptible in the dim light.

While we had been away, though, it had also been warm in Salzburg. Here on Katzenstraße, most of the snow has melted, save for crusted patches next to fences and gate pillars or under trees. Since we’ve returned, the sky has cleared but once or twice to allow a hesitant washed-out blue to break through pewter clouds.

Even so, the days are getting longer. Light fills the bedroom when we awaken now, and even at six in the evening I can see into the wood next to us. Tits, nuthatches and blackbirds still come to the feeding table, but yesterday I saw a blackbird plucking at a mound of earth in the garden. I haven’t seen the bold black squirrels for a couple of weeks now. They must have retreated to trees deep in the wood, perhaps to nest. A week or so ago, I began to hear a bird test his voice. Now, all morning, bird song thrills the air.

From my office window the other morning I saw movement in the wood. A figure wearing pink was coming in the direction of the house. I recognised our friend and neighbour Edith; she was carrying a basket filled with slender branches from a tree or shrub, its fresh growth bright red. And last night on Facebook she reported that the snowdrops are blooming. Hoffnung auf Frühling’—Hope of Spring—she added.

Genau, as they are fond of saying here. Exactly. This morning as I stood watching from the kitchen window something caught my eye at the edge of the fishing pond beyond the houses that face us. Across the expanse of grey-blue ice, at the edge of the opposite shore, a faint line of white ruffled and frothed. Water was lapping the shore. The ice is receding.

There is hope of spring.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Luck and the Rabbit

Gung hay fat choy to all my Chinese family & friends!’ my sister-in-law in Los Angeles posted this morning on Facebook.

She adds that her Chinese-Hawaiian mother-in-law cautions her not to sweep the floor today, Chinese New Year's Day, lest she sweep away her good fortune for the year.

It’s the year of the Rabbit, and were we living in California still, we would be surrounded by reminders of the occasion. As it is, it had gone out of my head until I read her greeting this morning. It is not a holiday widely celebrated in Austria.

Nor is Groundhog’s Day – which was yesterday – marked, though there are traditions concerned with predicting the weather that, I assume, date back to pagan times and were later subsumed within the Christian calendar.

I thought this morning how traditions I had always marked in the U.S., since childhood, have nearly disappeared from my awareness. Chinese New Year was in the forefront of our consciousness. As a teenager living 40 miles south of San Francisco, it was a treat to go into the city’s Chinatown early every February for the New Year’s Parade.

We would park the near Portsmith Square and emerge into the night and push through the throngs toward Grant Avenue. Red decorations were everywhere. Shop windows shone with bright silks and coloured slippers, paper umbrellas, kites, bowls. In some windows hung desiccated fowl and stacked tins of tea. All around us crowded people celebrating loudly.

The sharp blasts of firecrackers exploding also surrounded us. Crack, crack, crack – they exploded in sharp bursts at our feet, terrifying me – head stuffed full of horror stories of eyes blinded and hands blown off – and leaving a litter of blacked red confetti-like shards.

Under the streetlights, the crowds got denser, shoving and surging, writhing almost as a single beast off the sidewalk and into the street, as the shrill jangle of bells grew louder. We craned our necks, peering over heads and through gaps in the bodies, excitement mounting as we looked for the Dragon.

For that was the climax of the parade, the Golden Dragon, its oversized painted and decorated head bobbing and turning this way and that, as its body – scores of pairs of feet emerging from under a red cloth dozens of metres long – twisted and wound, leaping and lunging, through the crowded street.

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! I thrilled with fear and delight as hundreds of firecrackers exploded in rapid succession, marking the passage of the Dragon and the beginning of the New Year.

So thank you, Nola, for reminding me of Chinese New Year. Gung Hay Fat Choy to you. And thank you, Aileen, for reminding me to be careful about the year’s coming fortune. My floors will go upswept today.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Last week’s snow still piles the sides of the street and blankets the wide fields behind our house. It lies in jagged heaps on the frozen fishing pond seen through the houses across the way. The wood to our side is a tangle of grey-brown trucks and muted dark foliage screening a white floor. From my window, every so often I glimpse brighter colours as walkers crunch along the path through its trees. Under a pewter sky, the bright colours moving in the gloom catch one’s eye.

It’s been very cold, not rising above -1 C in the daytime and dropping much lower overnight. Bundled up in heavy coat with a scarf wound high and tight, I ventured out on my bike last week and again yesterday, rolling very slowly over the slick patches along the path by the river, wary lest the front tyre should suddenly fly from under me. Especially treacherous is the incline at the top of our street where several householders neglect to shovel their share of the street. The ice there accumulates inches deep. Even with gravel strewn over it, I couldn’t trust it. I dismounted and pushed the bike the 10 metres or so, worried in the event for my footing.

In these cold and frequently dark days, I’ve been considering the species of lassitude to which I’ve too often succumbed. Some time back I stumbled across a word, velleity, defined as the lowest degree of volition, a slight wish or tendency of mild degree, a ‘wish too slight to lead to action’. I copied out the definition because it seems a nearly perfect description of my own level of volition at times like this. This frozen winter seems to, at times, reduce my motivation to that level of personal agency.

And, more recently, I followed a link from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, to a commentary by Sam Rocha at Vox-Nova, in which he writes of boredom he suspects drives some of our frequently aimless ramblings through the rooms, corridors and antechambers of internet blogs and news sites.

‘I ask,’ Rocha writes, ‘(myself first and foremost): What is boredom but loneliness, alienation, lovelessness, and the desire for something to occupy the time in a way that puts those stark realities at a distance? What is boredom but not quite feeling at home in the place you are?’

Too often, I, your Spy, fumble around in this narrow small room of this blog, writing in spurts, at times with enthusiasm, delighted with the spectacle that surrounds me, at other times more halting and introspectively. Does the rise and fall in my volition — the attacks of lassitude or velleity — relate to the sense that sometimes I am not entirely at home in the place where I am?

It’s all very exciting to discover another way of living and to learn, however poorly, a new language. But there are days when I’m not entirely sure who I am. I wander the city, eyes wide with fascination at its beauties, but then resent being mistaken for a visitor. Someone stops me to ask directions, and I fumble, pointing and trying to find the words, and another passerby stops to intervene and delivers them in fluent German.

‘You can tell them you don’t know,’ Himself gently reminds me.

But I want to be able to help, long to show even simple competency. Being reduced to child-like inability to give directions, to communicate on the most fundamental level, challenges my sense of who I am.

This is not to suggest I want to leave Salzburg. Though I  felt a wave of homesickness looking at pictures of Tipperary in a calendar sent by my sister-in-law, I doubt at this point I would feel more at home in Ireland. Nor do I have the slightest desire to return the United States. No, what is required is continuing work — to learn German, to make a discipline of writing, here and elsewhere, to explore Austria and Salzburg to make the less familiar more familiar.

In fact, every so often, while riding the bus or waiting in the physical therapist’s office, an extraordinary feeling of well being comes over me. It is a sense that combines warmth and peace with something like the comfort of a maternal embrace. I look up a the pale light coming in a window and feel, suddenly, at home.

I mentioned it to Himself, who tells me he’s experienced the same sensation. There’s no way for us to know, at this point, how long we will have the chance to make our home here, but we’d like to think it will be for a long time.

Occasionally another expat American will tell me that Salzburg is a bit parochial or that there is a kind of snobbishness in some elements of life. For the time being, though, it is big enough so that the former hasn't struck us, and, in our ignorance, we are shielded from the latter.

What’s more, we are very very lucky in our neighbours here on Katzenstraße. Edith and Hannes, Sigrid and Gerald and their daughter joined us for dinner here on Saturday. After spaghetti and salad, we sat with our wine and schnapps listening to music and talking — switching from English to German and back — late into the night. Their warmth and acceptance has given us a social life we would not otherwise enjoy. The field, the pond and the wood may be frozen, but inside the radiators strum, tick and pump out warmth.

It’s good to be at home, here in the wood-panelled flat, at the end of Katzenstraße.