Austria X: The End of it All

“and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it…” Huck Finn.

Well, actually I’m not rotten glad of it. We’ve been home now well over a month and we’re back in our routines. Shannon and I are back at our respective schools and I’m writing several stories for various publications–Sue has clients to see and Aunt Laurie is back at the office. The dogs are glad we’re back and so are we–to a point.

Much like having children, no one can ever tell you what to expect when you go to Europe for the first time as an American. We had a different experience than many in that we had friends there who took time out of their lives to introduce us to their way of life, their city, their hometown and their environment. It was magical.

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I still can feel the seats in the 747 as twilight fell across the Canadian tundra while we sped toward London. I never did fall asleep that night and I was fine until we got on the next plane to Vienna. By then, I was exhausted–as was Shannon who fell asleep on the two-hour flight from London to Vienna and we had to wake her up after the plane parked at the gate.

I can still taste the delicious meal that Michaela prepared that first evening, July 2 and Wednesday by the time we arrived. It was cool and rainy and we got to the Englisch family’s home and there was a delicious and local caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes and veal in tuna cream, a favorite of theirs they said. I had just celebrated my 49th birthday and so they made a birthday cake with candles and all. I slept so soundly that night.

There are too many highlights and that is the purpose of this travelogue, of course. I laid them out in posts I through IX. Reflection is a delicate thing. I don’t want to lose what we all did in Europe, the connections we made and the time we spent. But I also don’t want overly romanticize it, either.

Perhaps like so many things in memory, it’s best to look back on what you liked most-what you cared about. For me, the history stands out from everywhere we were–and so does the natural scenery. But more than that, what stands out are the people. From the Englisch family to Rudi Pichler, Pia Pfneisl, Markus Kirnbauer and Gerald Baumgartner-the extraordinary winemakers in Wachau Valley along the Danube and Deutschkreutz respectively. Harry and Denise, Rainer’s friends and their neighbor, Andres.RHR

I think often of the Ebner family, Michael and Brigitte and their two sons who ran the beautiful bed and breakfast in Fuschl Am See-and all of the lovely people in the restaurants and along the lake who made our five days there so memorable. I remember the big finger-wagging Hungarian hotelier who, in broken English, informed me I’d broken protocol and didn’t sign my receipt in the restaurant properly…and I went back to my room’s balcony and watched the rain fall on the lush Hungarian landscape.

Hungary

I’m reminded of the kindness of the stranger in London who helped Sue and me when we were lost and the very kind police officer at Westminster Abbey who directed us to the Sanctuary, the London pub we loved so much, we went twice. What was sweeter still was getting to see Sofie, our first foreign exchange student from 2007/08 while in London. I’m reminded too of the kind cab driver who picked up first Sue, Shannon, Laurie and me and took us to his favorite pizza joint after we asked for a recommendation. He then drove back the two miles he drove us to pick up Sofie, Kristien and Justine and brought them to us–a trip based entirely on trust.

I still remember the comfort of the bed in the new Best Western hotel near Heathrow Airport. It was our last night in London, our last of vacation in Europe altogether and we were feeling melancholy and bittersweet. We wanted to go home and were ready to do that–but the experiences we had, the food we ate and the people we met were richly intertwined with our lives. We hadn’t had air-conditioning in the flat Rainer arranged for us in London and while it was a lovely place, we were ready to be in a cool environment.

And then I remember the plane ride home–10 and a half hours watching movies, reading, eating, nodding off here and there and finally, descent into Los Angeles.

Like that–we’d been planning for a year. It’s all we thought about, what we sacrificed for–it was Christmas and birthday presents, Easter and spring break all combined into one. For a year leading up to the trip, we pinched pennies and ate out less–we eschewed Disneyland for a night on the patio and some inexpensive wine. We dreamed about it, thought about it and prepared for it–and now it’s over. Now, we sit and talk about all of it–how much we miss it, or parts of it that didn’t go as we’d hoped. It’s a memory now.

And it’s onward marching toward the end of 2014 and headed toward Fall thinking about what this year will bring-what new opportunities will arise. But we’ll be forever colored by the Austrian journey and the blessing of reaching out to a broad and wide world–and occasionally, we’ll start talking about heading back to Europe someday–a five-year plan to see Ireland, France and Belgium. Who knows?

Who knows indeed?

Onward.

 

 

Austria IX: Leaving for London in the Sunset

The day before we left for London, 650 miles to our east, a small group of Russian separatists or rebels–the media has different names for them depending on who they like on a particular day–targeted a Malaysian airliner as it flew en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Whether or not they knew it was a passenger airliner is unclear. They fired a BUK surface to air missile and the plane exploded in-flight killing nearly 300 people.

We were having the time of our lives in Fuschl, Austria in a fine bed and breakfast on a lake. Shannon, already a nervous flyer-did not know about MH-17 and we aimed to keep it that way. It would do no good to let her know what happened and it would just worry her needlessly. We were doing a good job of it until we got to Schwechat Airport in Vienna. Television screens everywhere lit up with the investigation and the inept response from our own American government. Adding to it, the aircraft before ours at the gate was a Ukraine International 737 bound for Kiev. The terminal, a hustling and bustling place of activity was a bit quieter–and reporters were rushing, cameras, voice recorders and press credentials in tow, to make the plane. The cat was out of the bag and Shannon knew…

Our flight to London was beautiful. In fact, our flight from London to Vienna on July 2 was also beautiful. Both legs were operated by British Airways and both on aircraft not quite full with great flight attendants, a decent organic ham and cheese sandwich and a quick two-hour flight time.

Leaving Austria was harder than we expected, though we knew it wouldn’t be easy. Tears flowed and goodbyes were long. I knew we had stayed as long as we could and that Rainer, Michaela, Conni and Vicky would be happy to have their lives and home back-but it was no good being rational. This wasn’t about logic. We missed them before wheels up–and we continue to do so.

We arrived in the evening to tighter security and passport controls but even so, got through in less than an hour from gate to street and into the MPV that carried us to 24 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park, London. Rainer arranged for us to stay in a time-share flat that his company uses frequently and with the exception of the fact that there was no air-conditioning, it was perfect. A note to Londoners-I know you don’t think you need it, but air-conditioning would really make a number of the buildings in the city a lot better. And as the keepers of the mantle of western civilization, air-conditioning would make your city a far better place.

It was a quick trip and Saturday morning, Sue and I were up looking for a few groceries. Predictably, we got lost, but a very nice Londoner took good care of us. “It looks like you’re lost,” he said.

“Hate to admit it, but yeah-we are,” I said.

“Oh, well,” he said after we told him what we needed. “You want to go down this way over by Lancaster Gate to the Wait Rose. The place you’re looking for, quite frankly, is shit. Don’t go there.”

He was right, too-and I still think about the kindness of many of the Londoners–combined with the overwhelming number of Burqa-clad women and Arabic speaking men. There is a book called Londonistan. I see what that was about now.

Before we left on the trip, I finished the book The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. In it, he writes about the relationship between Mark Twain and Brett Harte among others. At the end of the book, he writes how Harte, who faded in fame after captivating the west with stories like The Luck of Roaring Camp, went to London to lick his wounds and never return. While Sue and I were out that Saturday morning, we passed by a building sign near Lancaster Gate. I didn’t get a photo, but it is indelible in my mind’s eye: “Francis Brett Harte, American Writer, Lived and Died here.” I got the chills. I felt at home–and far away, all at once.

But then, we were off and walking across Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard. It was a grand–and very crowded–affair. Shannon wanted to get a closer look and the two of us crossed the street while Laurie and Sue stayed back. We got a good view, but not before some poor young Czech chap (we knew from the language he and his family spoke-and we’d heard the language around Vienna and were schooled on the various Slavic languages in the area) blew chunks all over the sidewalk. We got fragged. It wasn’t pretty–so from then on, Shannon referred to Buckingham Palace as “Puke-ingham palace.”

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From there, it was on to the Whitehall, Big Ben, the London Eye–all of them on a giant walk. It was hot, humid and we were getting tired. The Abbey was too crowded on Saturday and so we didn’t go inside that day. I asked a kind British police officer for a recommendation for a pub in walking distance that didn’t feature people like us: tourists. He was more than happy to oblige and congratulated me on my bright choice–and off we went to The Sanctuary. It was our first of two visits–great beer on tap, Fullers London Pride among others, at cellar temperature, and great food. Everyone in the joint had a lovely British accent and while it might not be Shannon’s vote for favorite place, the three of us loved it.

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We wound up at part of the Imperial War Museum’s Churchill War Room and what a find. One of the bus tour-guides, a very nice guy with whom we traveled on Monday, said that he and his fiance, a museum curator, believed it was the best curated museum in all of Great Britain. It would be hard to disagree.

We spent more than two hours in the war room, the place from where Churchill ran the war. For me, a natural history and literature buff, it was exceptionally invigorating. Having toured the Salt Mines in Salzburg, a few kilometers from Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s Eagle’s nest, it was exciting to round out the trip by looking at the Allied side of things.

We saw Churchill’s war cabinet room with the wooden chair where he sat when the group met. The Prime Minister and his cabinet met here for hours on end making plans, drawing up defense and attack positions and debating the politics of each move. Every guest was given a handheld digital audio device, just like in Westminster Abbey, and you could go through the rooms at your own pace. On it, they not only include an audio guided tour, but samples of things like WWII era London air-raid sirens and re-enactments of Churchill and his cabinet debating.

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There was Churchill’s bedroom where, strangely, he didn’t sleep that often. Most of the time, even at the height of the war, Churchill would return home knowing the risks involved–but then, as you’re told repeatedly when you’re down there, if one of the German bombs had hit the government buildings above, there was very little chance that anyone would have survived. It wasn’t fortified. The Brits got lucky for lack of a better word.

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Sunday was the British Museum and I was astounded and ensconced by the Sutton Hoo exhibit with its quotes from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf all over the exhibit. It brought the entire epic to life for me–the Anglo-Saxon masks and the gold jewels, the armor, the swords. I was a child again, I really was. This has been my quarry for a few years now, this Anglo-Saxon and Medieval English literature–from Beowulf to King Arthur feels like Disneyland to me–it’s an escapist world where you’re left to draw your own conclusions. At first, the morals seem very clear–black and white, but when you analyze who Grendel is and what his mother must have been, you get a different take.

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The same happens in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Gawain simply does what his creed tells him to do–but then, in his quest to accomplish the task set before him, is tempted and challenged in ways he never believed possible. And his survival is not only to his credit, it’s a symbol for something beyond winning–it’s a holy crusade–of which all people are capable-and somehow, Gawain, the youngest knight of the round table, Arthur’s nephew, achieves immortality by admitting his flaws, accepting what he thinks is his fate. It’s remarkable.

It’s also England–an England that existed for a thousand years. But as you visit the island, you’re left thinking that it may be in its twilight now. In its mad imperialist rush to conquer the world, it has reaped a bit of what it sowed and now, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Sikhs–all of them have come here–and many of them are simply resentful, some revengeful and still others are vicious and seeking a way to strike back. London is a big, bustling, crowded city, a seething cauldron where civilizations are again colliding. Who knows where it will lead?

The best part of London, I saved for last. It was Sofie, our first foreign exchange student from 2007/08 who came to visit us with her sister, Kristien and Kristien’s daughter, Justine. What a gift! We spent two days with Sofie and her family and we ate together at the Hard Rock Cafe and a perfectly quaint pizza joint that our cab driver favored near the London Zoo, at Regent’s Park. Sue, Shannon, Sofie, Kristien and Justine went to the zoo while Laurie and I sat in Regent’s Park watching the people and enjoying the fine weather.

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We talked for hours together, catching up on our lives. When Sofie lived with us, she was 18 years old and the past seven years have seen her grow into a fine young woman with a real estate career, her own apartment and a life she loves. We agreed to a five year plan and we will return to Europe then, going to Sofie’s home in Antwerp, Belgium as well as France and maybe Ireland. If I had the means and my way, I’d leave tomorrow.

On Monday, we took the hop on-hop off double decker bus touring London and finally made our way to Westminster Abbey and took the tour. On the audio-phone we were given, we punched in the requisite numbers and heard the grand and unmistakeable voice: “Welcome to Westminster Abbey….I’m Jeremy Irons.” It was incredible.

abbey

Essentially a functioning church most famous as the venue for Royal family weddings (with the exception of Charles and Diana), but in fact an indoor cemetery, the Abbey’s grave markers are those of western civilization: Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Henry V, Elizabeth I, Henry VIII. Poet’s corner is a dream for English teachers: Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens, Auden, Dryden, Shelley, Owen–the list is endless. The place is one of somber grace and glorious memory. It’s hard not to walk by the most decorated central grave marker of the Unknown WWI Soldier and not see in it the metaphor for this “warlike state.” Great Britain in its prime was an imperialist global force that fought and conquered around the globe. The island nation still celebrates that history, all the while coming to slow realization that the chickens are coming home to roost and its empire is no more.

Photography of any kind is prohibited in the Abbey and one sees why: it is, after all, a place of remembrance and faith. Still, it was hard to resist–and I may or may not have taken a photo of my favorite English author’s grave…

Dickens

Cramped, crowded and hot as we were–we were given many gifts in London: from Sofie and her family to the British Museum to Big Ben, the Abbey, the Sanctuary pub and the original Hard Rock Cafe with Eric Clapton’s Fender stratocaster–the first item donated to the Hard Rock Cafes around the world–to Winston Churchill’s war rooms–we ended our vacation soaking up the essence of the beginnings of western civilization.

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How could we ever have done better than that?

Onward.

Austria VIII: Fuschl Am See

Bursts of sunset through pink, grey and even red clouds defined the dying minutes of daylight in Fuschl. One morning out of the five we were there, a driving rain poured from the sky, but quietly and softly with birds still chirping through it as the green hillsides lapped up the moisture and the swans and the ducks hid from view along the lake shore.

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Fuschl Am See is located just east of Salzburg, Austria in a district of lakes like Mondsee and Wolfgang See. The word “see” in German is lake in English and this region, tucked into mountains and hills at about 2500 or 3000 feet above sea level is reminiscent of places like Oregon or Idaho but without the high elevations and the dry conditions. Fuschl is a beautiful village and the memories of those five days and five nights are one of the happiest of our entire European journey.

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We were based for most of the trip at the Englisch family’s home in St. Polten and from there, we saw Vienna and all of the countryside we could squeeze into about eight days. When we returned from the wine festival at Deutschkreutz and Sopron, Hungary, we spent one more night at home and then headed out on Sunday morning to Fuschl, a place that the Englisch family has been coming to relax for a very long time– and Salzburg.

It was here that I went with the rest of the family into the salt mines and conquered those demons of claustrophobia, at least for a time–and it was here where, after going so far beneath the earth, we rode a ski lift to the top of the mountain, a few kilometers from Berchtesgaden, Germany and ate lunch at a lodge where the view was so breathtaking, my memory of it includes even the smell of the fresh drops of rain and tall pine and maple trees as the breeze blew just a wisp of clouds overhead.

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Salzburg is, of course, a major tourist attraction. I’ve written of it before in these dispatches, so no real need to revisit it. As I look back on it, even with the crowds of tourists, the beauty of the place stands out. An old walled city straddling the Salzach River as it meanders west through the country toward the Danube. Mozart was born here and the pedestrian zone of modern day shops and restaurants combined with the history of the place, the musical flavor and rhythm of it are still in my brain as I remember ambling down these alleys, the friendly people and the beautiful sights. mozartsalzburgwalk

 

Fuschl, where we stayed at a bed and breakfast that was as delightful as it was beautiful, was the perfect balance to Salzburg’s headlong rush of humanity. Where Salzburg was crowded and noisy, thrumming along with the beat of a city, Fuschl was tranquil, pastoral and relaxed. We walked down the hill from the inn and ate dinner at one of several lakeside restaurants watching the sunset, sipping wine and eating fresh food, including fish from the lake called “salmon-trout.” Well, I didn’t eat too much fish as it’s not really my thing, but Sue, Michaela, Rainer and Laurie did.

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The inn is run by the Ebner family and they appeared to me to be uniquely suited for the job. Mr. Ebner, Michael, is a master carpenter and built all of the furniture in the place. He continues to operate his company called Holz in Form, which builds customized carpentry and furniture. Mrs. Ebner, Brigitte, runs the inn and is responsible for keeping the place beautifully clean and offering up a breakfast each morning that I came to crave–and still do. Like Michaela’s morning breakfasts of fresh breads, meats and cheeses, fresh preserves and fruit, Brigitte too offered these things up along with local honey and cereals. The coffee–both at Rainer and Michaela’s home and at the inn–are something I have yet to duplicate in the states and I miss it more than anything with the exception of the bread.

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The Ebners’ two sons, Alexander and Moritz were always about helping out and Moritz, at one point, was in the kitchen fixing breakfast and serving guests while his mom was busy–all the while speaking to most guests in his native German and to us in rather perfect English. He was a real delight with a ready smile and a kind nature.

As time goes on, I will at times remember getting up each of those five mornings and going into Salzburg or heading off to Bad Ischl to the Kaiservilla where Kaiser Franz Joseph kept a summer home. It was in this villa that he signed the declaration of war against the Serbs after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife that led to WWI. It is a place of singular beauty and rustic surroundings on the banks of the River Traun.

But what I think about daily are the times of quiet peace where we went down to the lake and rented a small boat or walked through the village in the evening listening to an Austrian orchestra and band play Austrian music. Young women dressed in traditional dirndls walked through the crowd pouring small glasses of Apricot Schnapps.Austrianband

Several of the nights, we would simply sit in the portico which, as the only guests on the second floor, we Storer clan had to ourselves, and sip wine and talk with Rainer and Michaela. We particularly liked the small patio outside Laurie and Shannon’s room which had a fine view of the lake and where we rested weary feet after a day’s march through Salzburg.

Fuschl

It was here, at the inn in Fuschl, where we came after Conni surprised Shannon with a late birthday present of horseback riding at local farm and where, sadly, we tried icing and nursing both Michaela after her crash on the radlbahn (the summer mountain roller coasters) and Laurie’s pinky finger after it got caught in the door as I was closing it. That guilt still gets to me at times.

Fuschl was the perfect end to the trip, a poignant and simple place to look back on the whole thing before heading off to London and then home. It had equal parts bustling, historic city and sights and peaceful, quiet and tranquil countryside with a meal at a local Heuirgen (see previous posts) and natural beauty that is, if not unmatched, close to it. It was the last meal we shared in Fuschl as we were up before the Englisch’s the next morning for breakfast–and we knew that the next day meant traveling back with a quick stop at home and then on to Vienna and Schwechat Airport for the flight to London. It was time for goodbyes and while we were prepared for that, it made it no less sad-no less memorable.fuschlheuirgen

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Onward.

 

 

 

Austria VII: Crossing the Border

I remember walking up the stairs from the basement at Conni’s family’s house. Sue and I were quartered there as was Aunt Laurie in another room. It was cool and comfortable for us and it beat the summer heat. I was heading up to join the others on the patio and I stopped short of the landing and stood for a moment. I had just turned 49 years old and here I was with my beautiful family 6000 miles from home with friends I would never have met were it not for a number of unforeseen events like the fact that our attempts at adoption failed. If we had succeeded, the chances of us having ever met Conni a foreign exchange student who came to live with us-and therefore her family-are slim to none.

I was in Europe-fabled and historic places I’d only read about were now brought into sharp relief as I walked over Roman roads, stood in awe before spectacular cathedrals and abbeys and saw history from a perspective I’d never dreamed of before. But now, we were about to cross the border that used to define the frontier of the west with that of the east. So much has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union-and now, the border between Austria and Hungary is nothing more than a sign on a road:

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Two of our excursions led us to places most Americans never go. The first was Sopron (pronounced-“sho-pron”), Hungary. Rainer and Michaela had arranged for all of us to attend a two-day wine festival in Deutschkreutz, a countryside of rolling vineyards, lush and dense forests and really, some terrific wine. I was hired by Drink Me Magazine to write a profile on Austria’s wine-growing scene and since we’d done the Wachau Valley, with its stunning beauty, terraced vineyards and delicious white wines-Rainer wanted us to experience the Rotwein–or red wine festival, where even the kids got to sample some things, mostly non-alcoholic grape juice and the like.

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The event is densely packed, by Austrian standards. For those of us Californians, it simply wasn’t that crowded though– if you’ve ever been to the Paso Robles wine festival or any of the Central Coast tasting events. There were no rooms available on the Deutschkreutz side of the border. So Rainer got us rooms in Sopron and we headed across the border to stay at Hotel Lover (umlaut above the o in Lover-pronounced more like loo-vah), a fine if somewhat cranky and settled establishment above Sopron proper.

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It was a lovely old hotel with a basement swimming pool run by a very dour middle-aged woman who looked at you bitterly as you approached and ordered you to put plastic shoe coverings over your shoes. This was, ostensibly, to keep the dirt off of the wet tile. The practical effect, however, was that it made the floor about 30 times more slippery and dangerous and there were stairs everywhere. I chalked it up to one more thing you’d never find in the U.S. and probably an attempt to kill-or perhaps just maim-the guests that the dour middle-aged woman didn’t like.

Our first night there had some tension, I’m afraid. We Americans were, at this point, more worn out than we’d expected to be. Exhausted by the sheer gravity of the trip and hearing so many languages and simply not used to it all, we were a bit reluctant to join the others for dinner as they headed into town to see the Hungarian sights. This is a former communist country and the tensions that exist here as a result, the weak economy, the poor condition of the roads, the rather constant sense that the younger and older generations of this country don’t see eye to eye, is absolutely fascinating. It would have been great to see more of it–but we couldn’t muster up the strength to do it. So, while the Storers stayed behind to eat an unsatisfying Hungarian buffet at the Hotel’s restaurant, the Englisch family went off to explore Sopron.

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I got into a bit of hot water at the restaurant because, unaccustomed to how things worked and completely unable to speak the language, I forgot to sign the check and have it billed to our room. No waiter presented him or herself in a timely fashion and tired as we were, we simply got up after dinner and headed back upstairs. When I came back down to the lobby later in the twilight of evening (it doesn’t get dark in summertime here until 9:30 or 10:00) to get some bottled water, I had an official finger wagging and an angry Hungarian restaurant host telling me, I think, what a bad customer I was. I apologized in first English and then German (Es tut mir leid)-but to no avail.

Back upstairs to our room where the hotel had BBC World News. We didn’t watch a lot of television, so it was nice to hear English so far from home. We all collapsed into bed and slept hard that night.

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We spent a total of two nights in Sopron, the second being far more relaxed after a day of wine tasting, meeting new people with whom I’m still in touch at the Kirnbauer and Strehn wineries among others. The eight of us walked down from the hotel to a great little restaurant sitting amongst the trees as cool evening breezes rolled in. It was the perfect antidote to the previous evening and included a walk down to an even nicer hotel to see what we were missing. Of course, the nicer hotel had a higher price-tag too.

The second place we went after returning to St. Polten for a night was Fuschl Am See near Salzburg at an absolutely wonderful bed and breakfast–but that deserves it’s own post and so stay tuned for Austria VIII: Fuschl.

Onward.

Austria VI: Family and The rearview mirror

Dad and Joanne came to the house today mainly because it’s Sue’s and Aunt Laurie’s birthday. A good time was had and of course it included photos of the trip. We must have bored them to tears with more than 1000 photos of various kinds and places.

As we sat going through photos, we revisited again our trip and thought about what our time in Europe meant to us. Inevitably, some of the images have begun to fade. “What was that building again? Oh, that’s right!” It all carried such weight at the time and 90 percent of it we remember easily. But as another building slips by on the photo stream, another in a series of Byzantine London alleyways, it can run together.

Still, we wouldn’t trade it and talking about it helps us relive it all again–everything from the heat and humidity five miles into a 12-mile walking day to a delicious meal atop a hill overlooking the Danube River drinking luxurious wine and talking into the night until the day’s exhaustion carried us home to bed.

The routine back home has settled in now, but with added flavor. Sue has made a series of her own jams and preserves and she’s baked a loaf of really good brown bread. When we do buy meat and cheese, we look for organic or sustainable products that simply taste better as well as having the added advantage of being more healthy.

We walk more, talk more and we enjoy each other more. It’s the little things and they come back each day as we see a photo of Conni, Shannon and Vicky or another of Rainer and Michaela with wide smiles and wine glasses in hand.

This isn’t the last post–it’s a pause in the stream, however. We are all forever changed by what we experienced and we want to think about what that means to us and how we can use it, even if it’s just to plan for another European voyage someday.

Whatever happens, we’ll do it together–and if we can, we’ll meet up with our friends the Englisch family and Sofie and the Ides family in Belgium, one day–because in the end, while the experiences we had and places we saw are indelibly sketched into our hearts and minds–it was the people with whom we had the experiences and saw the places that mean the most to us–and perhaps that is the secret to traveling.

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Onward.

Austria V: Meandering Rivers

I live in Southern California, which means I live in a southwestern desert. It rains but little here in good years and in drought years, it rains hardly at all. As I write this, I am looking outside at cloudy skies and all over social media in Southern California this morning, everyone is commenting on the rain last night and this morning. It’s that big a deal when it clouds up and releases a little water here. There are a couple of rivers near here, but they’re rivers in the academic sense: they once had water flowing in them and in years when it rains a great deal, they have rapidly flowing muddy water flowing down from the hills and mountains. Otherwise, they are dry, sandy, hot and dusty beds where rabbits and rats, snakes and spiders dwell and where birds look for prey.

But having spent my boyhood in the Midwest and east of the U.S., it’s rivers that have always fascinated me. I was born in Ohio, not far from Lake Erie and I lived in Chicago, also near the Great Lakes. My dad was from Pittsburgh where the Ohio, Monongehela and the Allegheny rivers meet and I’ve always loved rivers, big and small.

Austria’s main river, of course, is legend. The Danube runs through the country, wide and meandering and life-giving. It’s not far from where the Englisch family resides and we went to the Wachau Valley along the Danube several times including taking a boat tour from Melk to Durnstein, viewing the castles and the terraced vineyards like bookshelves along the hillsides. We came here and ate at Heuirger among the vines and with views of the river that were spectacular. In many ways, my favorite part of the trip was the easy cruises along the river roads or the river itself, stopping to eat the local produce and drink the local wine while looking down at the Danube.

In St. Polten, where we stayed with our friends, the Traisen River flows neatly and gently through the town before it heads to the Danube. Then there’s the Traube, not far from Salzburg–and the Salzach in Salzburg proper, which divides the city and is bridged with pedestrian crossings allowing more singular views of the city. One such bridge is called the Love Lock bridge and all along it’s guard rail fences, couples write their names on small padlocks and attach them to the fence signifying that their love is forever. In a world growing more harsh and lacking love, it was a blessing to see people concerned about making sure the world knows they’re in love.

lovelocks

It seems odd to live along the Pacific Ocean and travel 6000 miles east to get on boats in a landlocked country. We not only took a brief trip down the Danube, but also a boat trip along the fabled Wolfgang See (Wolfgang Lake) near Fuschl, where we stayed for five days outside of Salzburg. The green and rolling hillsides, tall trees with commanding presence overlooking the lake, mountains carved down into valleys by water, these are things that you don’t see in Southern California where all is brown, dusty and scrub brush. Out the window of our bed and breakfast, the lake lay serenely with ducks, geese and swans floating atop the water, framed by the green hills and mountains, Elmaustein and Schafberg.

Fuschl

That part alone soothed me, if for no other reason than because I’m not used to it. The humid air and cool breezes, nighttime and morning rain and thunderstorms are common there, though we only saw a couple of them. As Rainer says, and as so many people say living in the Midwest or east, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes. It will change.” We loved sitting in the Englisch family’s backyard and watching the breezes sway the tall trees while the crows and birds cawed and chirped from above. As evening clouds rolled in, the restlessness of the critters in the trees became palpable as wind blew them in constant motion.

Englischyard

I’d like to see the country in winter, too. I’d like to feel the snappy cold and the brisk snow storms that roll through. I’m assured that they’re marvelous, for a while. Like anyone who has to live in such weather, it’s only beautiful until you have to go to work or drive through it or some such. I’m not immune to the fact that February here in So. Cal. usually doesn’t mean below 0 temperatures and ice-storms. There are upsides.

So, this is observation and nothing earth shattering here. As we started our journey home, we stopped in London for a few days and again, being first time visitors, we got to see things we’d only read about or seen in movies and television. As we toured the city, the River Thames was everywhere, turning like a serpent and dividing London and Westminster and all of the boroughs up nicely along its path. But London will be another post.

To paraphrase from one of my favorites, Norman Maclean: Austria is a beautiful country. And a river runs through it…

danubewachau

 

Onward.

 

Austria: Living the Dream

I haven’t been sleeping as well as I’d like since we got back from Austria and London. Chalk it up to the time change, yes-but also the change in routine, which has always been kryptonite for me. Add to this that the routine I’m adopting now is my freelance routine, not my teaching routine. During summer, I’m essentially a full-time journalist, but because I write for a number of publications about a number of subjects, that can mean days like today where I am up editing drafts and photos, sending correspondence and writing and it can also mean heading out the door at 8:30 am or at 2 p.m. or whenever to cover a story like I’ll do later today.

Now, though, the added element of dreaming has blurred things from time to time. I’m not dreaming in German, I don’t speak the language well enough to do that. But I am dreaming about Austria and the U.K. and even Hungary. Last night was a case in point. I was more relaxed last night than I’ve been since we got home a bit over a week ago. Sue and I took Shannon to the county fair and then, after dropping her off at a friend’s house for the evening, we went back to the Beach Boys concert, which was great fun.

The music, the cool breeze and fog of the evening, a friendly crowd and time alone with Sue really put me at ease. So it was with some consternation that I awoke from a chaotic dream about being in Austria and missing a train here, having to cross a border there and shepherding a number of kids from place to place. Obviously, the dream of Europe for me is intruding into the inevitable teaching dreams that happen this time of year so that even when I’m good and relaxed, reality intrudes on the deepest of R.E.M. sleep.

But if I break it down just a little bit, I find that I basically miss Austria and even London a little bit. The county fair here is a great example of some basic (and, I admit–unkind) reasons why. To begin with, at least from an anecdotal perspective, Europe does not have the weight problem we do in the U.S. Walking around Vienna and Salzburg, you do not see so many overweight people. I’m convinced this has to do with two simple factors and they are exercise and food.

The food in Austria (I cannot speak for everywhere since I spent the majority of my time in that country) is wholesome and good. The flour isn’t processed into flavorless powder and the milk isn’t homogenized into one flavor. The meat isn’t filled with hormones and antibiotics and the cheese isn’t either. And everyone walks-or rather, walking and cycling aren’t frowned upon. Walking a mile or two to the bakery or the store is, especially if the weather is good, the preferred option.

heurigen2

The results, as far as I can see, are a populous of people who simply aren’t as heavy as we are in the states. I do confess that the county fair isn’t a fair place to judge as the preponderance of overweightness is….palpable.

I miss too the experience of history on a daily basis, the natural awe that occupied my mind and body every outing. One doesn’t get that sense in California. History here is disjointed, almost on purpose, by the fact that generally speaking, the history of English speaking people in this state is relatively recent. There is indeed a lot of history here and one need only look to the Chumash tribes that thrived or even the arrival of the Spaniard priests and the Mexicans. But as those are not the people from whom I am descended, it’s not quite the same, I suppose.

wonder2

I miss the wine, the beer and the aforementioned delicious food. It’s so hard to reproduce that here, but I’m working on it. It takes a different way of thinking and of buying groceries. I find that I’m extra cautious about buying meat altogether and really won’t buy it unless it is at least minimally processed with no added hormones or antibiotics and says so on any packaging. We don’t have local butchers in California, at least not here. We have supermarkets with slaughter-house meat that comes from miles away and if one isn’t careful, processed and so full of additives that it hardly looks or tastes like meat anymore.

cellar

I don’t miss coach seating on trans-Atlantic flights and I don’t miss airline food (though the organic ham and cheese flatbread on British Airways Euro-Traveler from London to Vienna and back was quite good), but I miss the buzz of travel and the extraordinary graciousness of our hosts, the Englisch family. I find that I miss Conni and Sofie, too–our foreign exchange students. It was Conni who planted the seed in our heads that we should go to Europe, a thought which until then had never crossed our minds-and we’re grateful that she was insistent.

gala photo-1

Another dream I had this morning before I awoke put me back in London. I even awoke to seeing Union Jack flags in my mind’s eye and hearing London accents from the friendly cab driver who shuttled two trips to carry seven of us to his favorite pizza place near Regent’s Park to the very kind policeman at Westminster Abbey who was more than happy to oblige when I asked him to direct us to a local pub where there would not be a lot of people like us: tourists.

 

It’s those images, those memories that grab me. Yes, I saw Vienna and Hungary and London and we drank great wine, ate great food and experienced pieces of history and culture that we’d only read about. But in the end, those memories will not last like the ones of the people-all of the relationships and kindness. From Rainer’s friends, Harry and Denise to Rudi Pichler, the genius winemaker in the Wachau Valley to Nick the very affable and friendly London bus tour guide and Jason, who was the nicest flight attendant aboard Virgin Atlantic to London for whom we could have asked–right back to Rainer, Michaela, Conni and Vicky in Austria who inspired the trip and made memories for us by going out of their way to see to it we were well taken care of.

Those are dreams that will last and last. I hope.

Onward.