Austria: Little Victories

As I write this, I’m sitting in the morning sun that comes in through the blinds to the living room. I’ve poured the first cup of coffee this morning and I can’t help but reminisce. Coffee, like almost all of the food stuffs on this trip, was one of our favorite things in the Englisch family house. Michaela and Rainer have a very cool coffee maker that grinds and prepares each cup one at a time. They drink a brand from Italy called Lavazza and just yesterday, I found it (albeit in an already ground form) at Cost Plus World Market. It’s good–but not as good as it was there…

This trip was a once in a lifetime trip for us. We may well indeed go back to Europe some day, but it will not be quite like this.

There was a part of me that knew this intuitively and thought about it everyday. We kept up a very brisk pace as we experienced Austria the U.K. and even Hungary for two days. We were always on the go. For me, the whole thing begins with the flight to London back on July 1 and 2.


I can be a nervous flyer and tend toward claustrophobic. The longest flight I’ve ever taken is between Los Angeles and Boston and I kept in mind that the flight from L.A. to London is about three and a half hours longer than that. I didn’t even consider the flight between London and Vienna because, I assumed, once we got to London, a two-hour hop across the English Channel would be no big deal. I was right about that.

And I did OK on the longer flights as well–even though the flight home took place just several days after the downing of MH-17 by Russian separatists over the Ukraine. It didn’t help that while sitting at the airport, various television screens were broadcasting scenes from the wreckage. I didn’t need anymore help being nervous.

Our last five days in Austria we spent in and near Salzburg at Fuschl Am See (Fuschl on the lake) at a bed and breakfast there. It was glorious, too. The rooms, small by American standards, were comfortable and unique and there was plenty of common living space on a wooden and enclosed patio deck adjoined by Sue’s and my and Shannon and Laurie’s room. The Ebner family, who built, own and run the Inn, were the kindest and nicest people. We enjoyed talking with them each morning. We arrived on a Sunday evening and on Monday morning, we headed into Salzburg and up to the Salt Mines.

As I said, I tend toward the claustrophobic and it was my intention from the time we jumped in the car not to go down in the mines. I had no intention of spending an hour and a half below ground in a cave in cramped quarters. But when we got out of the car and walked over to buy tickets, I got one too. The tour is 70 minutes and Sue was calmly encouraging me to go as was Shannon. “You’ll regret sitting up here for over an hour doing nothing.” She was right about that–I knew she was.

No pills, no liquid courage, nothing. I got in the queue, went down to the entrance and suited up in the white overcoat and pants one wears in the mines and off I went. Michaela knew of my claustrophobia and she was solicitous of me as we boarded the little electric train and headed into the mountain. She asked if I was alright and even patted my shoulder at one point (which I doubt she remembers–but it helped).


The salt mines are a wonder. It was the Celts who discovered salt here back around Roman times in something like 400 A.D. Using crude tools and digging what amounted to small tunnels, they harvested salt here, lived here and died here. There’s even a model of a well preserved man down in the mine built to look like the one they found preserved in all of the salt sometime back. It’s rather gruesome to look at, however.

The tour is led by a guide, ours was Lucas, and he was quite good. He spoke German and English and led us into the first room where all 65 of us or so sat in a small theater and watched the first of four videos that are shown on the tour. The video introduces you to Wolfgang Reichert (I believe this was his name), a priest who built much of Salzburg on the backs of those who labored in the salt mines. While you’re doing the tour, you cross over the border from Austria to Germany-so, I can honestly say that on this trip, we did go to Germany-albeit underground for about a half hour.


It was during the video that I downed my first and only panic attack of the trip. I’m still in awe of the fact that I stopped it on my own–with Michaela’s, perhaps unwitting, help. I sat next to Sue as the video started and in the cold air (50 degrees Fahrenheit all the time), I began to sweat and get dizzy. I recognized it was happening and started talking to myself. It was then that Michaela asked me again if I was OK, perhaps she noticed-I’m not sure. My reply was, “I think so. I assume God is in control.” Michaela smiled and assured me He was. And that was it. I was fine the rest of the tour. I opened up, relaxed and learned so much down in those tunnels. I got on the two wooden miners slides at more than 100 feet down screaming like a child as we straddled the rails and rode deeper under the mountain. I really enjoyed every moment after that.


From getting on International flights to going down more than 600 feet under a mountain to trying new foods and traveling into a former Eastern-bloc country, the number of firsts accomplished for me personally, little victories allowing love and curiosity to triumph over fear and safety-concerns, made me feel accomplished and allowed me to do things I ordinarily would never have done. And I’m just so glad I did that…



Austria: Houses of the Holy

Today’s post will deal with the more non-tangible, and yet infinitely beautiful, portion of the trip to Austria, Hungary and the U.K. From the complex history that embodies Austria (“ist nicht schwarze, ist nicht weisse,”–it’s not black and it’s not white, as Rainer would say to me) to the myriad churches we visited, there was a spiritual portion that I’m certain people feel when they travel abroad all the time. We, however, had the added advantage of being hosted by residents of Austria and so several times, Rainer, Michaela, Conni and Vicky would take us to places that simply required no words, but inspired a kind of awe and internal wonder.

Of course, Austria’s history goes way back to pre-Roman times and archaeologists there are constantly finding things going back to the first century and earlier. When you walk in Vienna, an incredibly clean and beautiful city, you’re walking over Roman roads and going inside buildings that date back to the 1100’s and earlier. St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the biggest church in Vienna and the landmark of the city, began construction in something like the 900’s. All of the majesty and beauty and mystery that the Catholic church can muster–and it can muster quite a bit–is housed in such places. Shannon went with Rainer and Vicky and climbed the very narrow winding 400-step staircase (378, I believe) to the top of the cathedral’s tower for an unparalleled view of Vienna. The U.S. and the British bombed Vienna heavily and St. Stephen’s wasn’t spared, so there are portions that have been rebuilt and work continues on the edifice of the building where pollution has left its mark in the rather porous stone construction.


As a man of faith, I could not help but be moved by each and every church we went to from St. Stephen’s to Westminster Abbey in London to the smaller churches in the Englisch family’s hometown of St. Polten, I savored every one, prayed in nearly all of them and felt God’s presence in places where the obvious goal is to get you to do such things.

The Abbey at Melk, along the Danube river not far from St. Polten was a particular favorite. Still home to 33 monks, a school and a thriving tourist attraction, the Abbey, which is visible from the main highway and from the river, is an incredibly beautiful place with history that dates back so far, that changes are palpable during the guided tour. A byzantine era crucifix, a baroque era tapestry and so on. Even Shannon, who as a young teenager would be forgiven for uttering her birthright statement of “boring,” was never bored. She too was in awe of what has been preserved here and what it tells us about the people who lived then–and ourselves.


It’s very easy as non-Catholic Americans to denounce the opulent riches in such places by a church whose primary mission is to care for the poor. Yet, here again, that is looking at it through very American eyes and, in fact, it is the poor themselves who come to these places and are nourished by worship and prayer here. The churches are places of holiness. They are sacred, it seems, even to people who live here and are not necessarily people of faith. I wore a hat throughout the trip, a baseball hat, and in every church, I walked in, I automatically took it off–the atmosphere immediately changes when you walk through the door  and reverence is the first of the emotions (OK, so at Westminster Abbey, I forgot–I was tired, I suppose–and was politely reminded by the staff there to take my cap off, which I sheepishly and apologetically did).


There are more organs in Austria than I’ve ever seen anywhere-but then I haven’t traveled much. These incredibly beautiful, ornate and delicate yet huge instruments that seek to bring the majesty and mystery of God in the music they pipe out, are everywhere. I was only fortunate enough to hear one being played in St. Polten. As we walked in the door, the organist was finishing up a rehearsal and the moment was beautiful, reverent and afterwards, quiet and solemn.

This was a metaphor for the voyage as a whole–it was something sacred, perhaps once in a lifetime, if not to the place itself, then with the addition of local friends, hosts as tour guides, who took us to places we would not normally have seen. We didn’t go to tourist traps for the most part, we went where Austrians go and of all the many and varied languages of tourists we heard–and we heard many–the places we went were primarily German-speaking because that’s who was there. In a way, it helped add to the sacred nature of the trip. We were strangers in a strange land, but in the care of the Englisch family, we were welcomed and allowed for a moment to be part of Austria in a way most Americans do not get to be.


Bread, Beer and Europe.

I’m home now. I miss bread. I miss beer. I miss Europe. This is the first of a number of posts after many days of tossing and turning over how I was ever going to post about the longest vacation my family and I ever took to Austria, Hungary and the U.K. We’d never been abroad and we took advantage of the stars aligning for our 20th anniversary, Shannon’s 13th birthday, Aunt Laurie’s chance to get away from it all for three weeks and our closely developed relationship with the Englisch family, the eldest daughter of whom was our foreign exchange student in the spring of 2013. I will be writing about the trip for the next few weeks in a series of posts mainly to help me process what I’ve seen and done–but if you come along for the ride, perhaps you’ll enjoy it too.

But I’ll not start reminiscing about the entire trip. For that, allow me to post this picture–it is the look on our faces that tells it all–sheer wonder. Ignore the man on the right, he’s not with us. Look at my face (if you know me–I’m wearing the hat) and Sue’s in the black shirt with white flowers. Look at my daughter’s face, standing in between our host Michaela on the left and her youngest daughter Vicky to the right. That’s Conni, our exchange student, next to me. wonderatmelk

That’s the way we were nearly every day–including when we got up in the morning to a spread of freshly baked breads, homemade preserves, a selection of meats and cheeses, coffee (oh! the coffee!) and fruit.

So let’s start here where it’s easy. Last night, still recovering from the jet-lagged, memory loss of time and the sweeping 10 hour airplane voyage on Tuesday, I sat down to dinner with the girls over a big salad and a few slices of pizza. That’s when it dawned on me: tasteless. Everything we ate had no flavor-none. Round Table Pizza could just as easily have come from a box in the frozen aisle. The beer, from the New Belgium brewing company in Fort Collins, Colorado, once ballyhooed as a “craft brewery” making real ale and lager, was watery, too cold and simply boring.

If that’s not enough, I met with my pal Scott Wolfe at a local ale house here in Camarillo. The place was started by former students of mine and they do a nice job–and no offense to them, the beer was weak and unsure of itself. It was too cold and lacked real flavor. It tasted, for all the world, homogenized.

That’s what I am missing most right now. Bread in Austria was a revelation. Crusty and crispy on the outside, tender and fluffy on the inside and every bite packed with unique flavor that filled my mouth. I could eat the bread without any accoutrement, any adornment at all–and often did. But just as often, I put slices of meat and cheese on, also full of flavor, or unique spreads made from herbs and local cheeses from sheep, goats and cows. There doesn’t seem to be an organic food movement in Austria because they didn’t know there was a need. Their food is produced well–for the most part. Sure, there are exceptions. But the staples of their diet are not mass produced homogenized slop that comes from some factory somewhere. It’s made by their friends and neighbors. Yes, this is a small country at about 8 million people, but the simple fact is bread and beer in Austria and in the U.K, for that matter, render the American versions of said staples to a kind of self-loathing reserved for binge drinkers who beat their wives and are sorry the next morning.

Bread and beer. There has to be a way to bring these fine morsels to a home here in California. There are craft breweries every 10 or 15 miles along the roads where I live–and not one of them makes beer as good as we had in Austria and in the U.K. Good beer? Sure. Good enough. But great beer–beer that on a daily basis is incredible to drink, provides a happy chance to sit and talk to friends and family, and warms both the stomach and the heart? No. I’m sorry. But no. dunkelmariazellLondonprideNo, I’m not calling for revolution. Well-not yet, anyway. I am simply blue. I miss bread and I miss beer. I miss the Englisch family and I miss Austria and even London, a little. But I’m home now and I know I belong here.

At least I think I do.