Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Lent began mildly this year. The weather was mild and dry, but a pall like pewter hung over Katzenstraße. The wind, though not cold, had the bite of the Santa Ana winds of Southern California. The still-bare towering trucks in the wood bent under its breath; birdsong was temporarily muted under its roar.

Away in the distance, the multi-layered crags and peaks of Untersberg seemed crisper that Wednesday morning three weeks ago, lavender-blue and white with snow stark against the silver-white of the clouds behind it. Here and there the grey and white clouds parted, revealing weak soft blue. But between the heights of Untersberg and this flat by the still-brown wood, stretched kilometre after kilometre of what that morning seemed void.

Ever since Silvester, through the merry weeks of Fasching, Himself and I mentally prepared ourselves for Lent. Most years – the exception was last year, when our move from Ireland fell in the middle of the season – we have together made a specific Lenten sacrifice. This year we again picked up the tradition and are forgoing our ritual glasses of wine with dinner, our glasses of whiskey and beer afterward. It is an alcohol-free season for us.

During the three weeks since Ash Wednesday, we have borne with equanimity the blankness implicit in that morning. Outside of Lent, when I encounter the hard spots in the afternoon, those take-a-deep-breath-and-soldier-on grey drudgery moments, there is usually the promise of the glass of wine with dinner or the anticipation of evening’s light reflected through a golden glass of malt. Now, in the absence of that promise, I take a deep breath and think, ‘It is good for you to feel the blankness. It is good to let it go, if only for a while.’

It may be good, but it is hard. I feel it is not so much the absence of alcohol that causes the struggle but the absence, these days, of a sense of self. Perhaps it is the absence of the drive within myself to do something or complete something important. I am reminded that the blankness of being can be felt amid the beauty of Salzburg as it can be felt in urban sprawl or desert or anywhere.

‘Wherever you go,’ runs the enigmatic expression, ‘there you are.’ And there are times when one must bear the burden, unsoftened, of feeling what it is to be ‘there’.

The experience of this Lenten discipline changes every time we practice it. I find it works best for me when I willingly embrace it. There have been years when I’ve felt coerced. There have been years when just the everyday pain of life was penance enough. This year, I am conscious of feeling the difference of time, the contraction and expansion of the hours after dinner. As the weeks pass, I begin to feel differently this passage of time.

When I feel most restless and irritable with the exercise, I call to mind these words, from Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana:

‘"Discipline" is a difficult word for most of us. It conjures up images of somebody standing over you with a stick, telling you that you're wrong. But self-discipline is different. It's the skill of seeing through the hollow shouting of your own impulses and piercing their secret. They have no power over you. It's all a show, a deception. Your urges scream and bluster at you; they cajole; they coax; they threaten; but they really carry no stick at all. You give in out of habit. You give in because you never really bother to look beyond the threat. It is all empty back there. There is only one way to learn this lesson, though. The words on this page won't do it. But look within and watch the stuff coming up – restlessness, anxiety, impatience, pain – just watch it come up and don't get involved. Much to your surprise, it will simply go away. It rises, it passes away. As simple as that. There is another word for self-discipline. It is patience."’

Now, Spring comes forth boldly. The birds chatter all day long, the days dawn bright and warm, the floor of the wood next to the house is carpeted with green, and the daffodils swell with yellow. Through the explosion of life, I am hanging in there. I try to allow myself to bear the blankness and know that the swelling yellow buds and green haze of the trees mirror something within myself. I am trying to give myself the gift of patience. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Green, The Wearing of

Two years ago on this date, on a bright spring day, I stood in Cahir Square, Co Tipperary, and watched as representatives from the town’s clubs, schools, sports teams and merchants paraded past Cahir Castle, across the bridge over the Suir, up Castle street and around the square. Among the marchers were Hannah Rose, twins Ava and Michaela, and their big brother Callum, who are grandnieces and a grandnephew of Himself and me. Green, gold and white banners fluttered in the sun. The Cahir River Rescue team, of which Callum’s, Ava’s and Michaela’s father is a member, towed one of their boats in the procession.

After the parade ended, people milled in the streets. Children ate sweets and ices; parents shouted after them as they romped away. In the sun’s warmth, we visited with friends and family and watched as a bandstand was set up. Soon the music began, and local children and musicians sang and played their instruments. Then, as the music ended and the crowd broke up, I began walking down the town and out the road toward the Cahir Golf Club, on my way home. By pre-arrangement, Himself – who had gone ahead on an errand – met me on the road, and together we drove home.

Back in Garryroan – the townland just outside Cahir where our house stands – Peggy, my mother-in-law, had prepared a special meal of lamb and a nice bit of bacon (ham, for all the difference in it), mashed potatoes and cabbage. For Peggy, St Patrick’s day never lost its significance of as a Holy Day. The day began with mass, and the midday dinner would be as important as Sunday dinner. We shared a bottle of wine, and while Himself and I did the dishes – a formidable task always, after one of Peggy’s dinners – she went into the sitting room to rest. Later, Himself and I would meet with others in town for a drink. That evening, RTÉ would broadcast video of parades from all over the country, small towns and large, all with marching bands, children in school uniforms, sports teams in their colours, and, in the larger cities and towns, floats and costumed players, bands from America and beyond, festive amid banners and streamers and crowds.

St Patrick’s day in Ireland is both religious and patriotic holiday, a day off to celebrate both Saint and Country. People wear funny hats, to be sure, oversized bright green furry top hats, or hats representing foaming pints of Guinness. But, more importantly, their collars and labels sprout bunches of fresh shamrock, which is, along with the harp, the symbol of Ireland, the ‘wearing of the green.’

On this evening three years ago, Himself and I, along with his brother, walked through the rain and the muck of a terrible ‘durty’ evening across the fields outside Cashel, Co Tipperary. There a spectacular fireworks display and laser show was one of the national festive events to mark the day. The fireworks went ahead despite the rain. I stood on a hillside looking over the magnificent, historic Rock of Cashel and watched as rockets exploded against the murky sky. It was my first year living in Ireland and I felt a strange disconnect seeing a patriotic display comprising gold, green and white rather than red, white and blue. It was another in a string of adjustments, large and small, I hadn’t anticipated but which made sense in the moment.

This evening, I’m typing this in a room growing darker with the oncoming dusk. It has been grey and rainy all day, and I feel far from the festivities of Ireland or, for that matter, from the American exuberance surrounding the day. Soon, however, Himself will be home from the office. We’re both wearing our badges of shamrock encased in plastic, as we do every year on this day. We’ve planned to meet with some others from his office at an Italian restaurant for dinner. Then we’ll go up a narrow gasse under glowering Mönchsberg to Murphy’s Law, a pub run by a sometimes cantankerous Corkman. It will be crowded with Austrians, most likely, with a smattering of Americans and a handful of Irish, the noise and the crush growing as the evening goes on.

But now, in this quiet before we go out into the crowd, I pause for a moment to think of the hedgerows across from our house in Garryroan. Today they will still be brown and bronze after the harsh winter, but perhaps the bracken is just beginning to green. Perhaps there is the faintest haze of green as the beeches across the fields begin to bud.

And perhaps Peggy – if you were still there, Peggy – perhaps you would have brought in some willow, the catkins just swelling. We might even be able to find, were we there to look, the first of the pale primroses, half-hidden under the fall’s scatter of old leaves, the sight of which, Peggy, would bring a flush of child-like joy to your face. For me, that would make St Patrick’s day complete.

Beannachtaí Lá le Pádraig to all.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Yesterday was Faschingsdienstag, the culmination of Fasching, as carnival is known in German-speaking Europe. It’s a season of silliness, costumes, music and noisemakers, and it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in Ireland or in California.

Fasching began for us in January, when I happened, by pure luck, to be in the centre of Salzburg to witness the start of a Fasching band festival. Bands from all over Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Germany, dressed in outlandish costumes, played on platzes around the city for two days.

They played marching band instruments, with percussion sometimes augmented by traditional wooden blocks and clappers. Performing on outdoor stages, they played popular songs and traditional songs and marching songs, including one song that was repeated by all the bands through the day. A kind of anthem, I assume it’s associated with Fasching.

Himself and I were there again the next day when, with a huge crowd watching, the bands assembled and played along side one another. An MC egged us all on, and the crowded linked arms and swayed in time with the anthems. When it ended, band members mingled, laughing and talking, eating and drinking beer. Sometimes they stood in groups playing on and on. Dusk was gathering when we followed the last of the bands as it marched away.

Over the weeks since, I gathered what I could about Fasching from what was going on around me. Costumes and streamers of confetti were on sale in shops and grocery markets. Cases of sparkling wine were also prominently displayed. Several times on our way home from the city centre, we met people in costumes and painted faces waiting at bus stops. Last weekend we saw a brass band of about eight members playing on a bus as it pulled away. Just as the door closed, we heard the same Fasching anthem. I wanted to jump on the bus to hear them play it.

So yesterday, I bicycled into the Altstadt to see what I could of the last day of Fasching. It was a fine day warmed by a generous sun. Sandbars showed in the pale blue-green water of the Salzach, which is low right now. As I approached the city centre, there were dozens of people, many with bare legs and shoulders, lying on its steep grassy banks and playing on its sandy shore. A group of young people played a game that involved balancing bottles of beer in the sand then, at a signal, picking them up and drinking until someone shouted ‘Stop’.

I left my bike and simply walked, looking into shop windows and pausing now and again to read restaurant menus. I had heard that on Faschingsdienstag people wore costumes to work, so I was looking for as many costumes as I could find. Here and there were knots of children, sometimes shepherded by an adult, dressed up with painted faces. One group stood in narrow Linzergaße blowing noise makers nonstop. Another child of about five was dressed as a red devil. He looked up, wordless and unsmiling, at his father, who stood visiting with a friend.

Adults wore costumes too, the younger ones showing the most extravagant imaginations. Faces painted, dressed as pirates and oversized elves, as cowboys and sailors, in baby doll outfits and vamp clothes, they roamed the streets, arms over their companions’ shoulders, calling out to others and drinking beers. Sometimes there was no custom but bright coloured clothes, painted faces, wigs and outrageous hats. A waiter, dressed in the staid livery of the Hotel Sacher – the most expensive hotel in Salzburg – wore a bright orange fright wig as he served drinks on the hotel terrace.
When I had tired myself out walking, I turned to bike home again. Passing a bridge on my way, I stopped to see why a small crowd, some carrying placards, was milling about. A woman handed me a brochure and invited me to go to Rathausplatz. There was, she said, an exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

Just then, a small band of women began playing jazzy-bluesy tunes while a news cameraman filmed them. One of the band, a big blonde woman in a bright violet jacket and matching violet glasses, played a terrific soprano sax. A young man in the crowd watching swayed and clapped as he watched.

I passed on the exhibition. The music and colour, laughter and sun, the women’s smiles as they played, had been enough for me.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bus Discipline

When we moved to Salzburg  a year ago, I was warned that Austrians occasionally scold strangers in public. They have, I was told, great respect for order and discipline, and it would not be unusual for a old woman, for instance, to upbraid someone for riding a bike on the wrong side of the road or crossing the street against the light.

As it turned out, I’ve found Austrians to be more relaxed and accepting than those warnings suggested. There is a certain reserve, certainly, but there’s also much warmth, willingness to help and a great sense of fun.

We’ve also seen disorder we didn’t expect. Firecrackers and rockets have been exploding in the night from fields around us since well before Christmas. With Fasching – Carnival – reaching its climax, I expect it will continue for a few more days.

Silvester – New Year’s Eve – in the centre of Salzburg was nearly riotous. Every third person, it seemed, had an arsenal of large rockets. They exploded around us, bursting overhead without stop. When the official fireworks started, they were dulled by a pall of smoke and hard to distinguish from the private rockets still filling the sky.

And it’s every man for himself when it comes to queues in supermarkets or other public places. We’ve learned to push our way through and be vigilant about holding our place in line, because it’s likely that someone will try to jump ahead, given the chance.

But generally there is a great deal of decorum about public life. I notice it particularly on the buses, where riders are quiet and polite. Even when the buses are full of passengers, they are not noisy. Teenagers and school kids, boarding in bunches, joke and laugh, teasing each other. But they don’t shriek or shove. Loud conversations – whether face to face or on mobiles – are unusual. You see no litter, no graffiti or vandalism. There is no undercurrent of threat or intimidation. All seems orderly and safe.

Last week I boarded a bus right as the bells ringing at noon. Around me were knots of school children on their way home for lunch. Two boys about eight years old were sitting in the front seats. Sitting about six or seven row behind them, I saw that one of them was slapping other's head, playfully, I thought. Not paying too much attention, I was conscious only of a repeated motion, dark gloved hand against dark soft cap, a slight distraction as I looked out the window. 

A small man of about 75 wearing a traditional stiff felt hat was sitting two rows behind the kids. Suddenly he stood, reached over the head of the woman in front of him and walloped the kid doing the slapping. After striking the kid on the back of the head, he said something sharp and brief. Then he sat down and looked at the woman in the seat facing him, saying something with a smile and a quick little nod.

A little farther along the street, the two boys stood up and, with subdued faces, moved to the back of the bus. Obviously, they didn't know the man, nor do I think the man knew the woman.

I think I had just witnessed my first instance of a stranger doing his part to protect the public order.