The Global Suburb (A letter from Salzburg, Oct. 19, 1998)

[NOTE: When I was directing Bowling Green State University’s study-abroad program in Salzburg, Austria, in 1998-99, I wrote a series of letters to the faculty list back at BGSU. I got wonderful responses, so I kept writing them! This one, from October, 1998, reflects on how Austrian and German culture have absorbed and adapted American culture, including borrowing words, especially from popular culture, business, and high tech.

I wouldn’t come to all the same conclusions today.  A lot has changed in twenty years – for example, Netflix is making many series produced abroad available to American audiences – and a lot sounds quaint and out of date, but a lot has stayed the same or continued to develop in the directions described.]

 

The Global Suburb

Last week I bought some potato chips–“Chips” in German–with the brand name “Funny-frisch.” “Frisch” means “fresh,” and Germans seem to think that “funny” is the adjectival form of “fun,” so this probably means “fun-fresh,” not “humorous-fresh”.  The product and the name have the aura of America, where both the snack (German “Snack”) and the idea of eating for fun come from. Countless such borrowings show the pervasive influence of American and international culture in Germany and Austria, especially in business, popular culture, and high technology.

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Many a German “Manager” hopes that his “Management” has the “Know-how” to provide the “Level” of “Service” required to avoid a “Flop.” Whether his “Business” involves “Leasing” or “Investment” in “Blue chips” (not to be confused with “Microchips” or “Funny-frisch Chips”), he will probably want to provide his customers with either a “Hotline” or “online internet business” opportunities–in short, “E-Business.”

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The “Kids” in Central Europe are hip to “Hip-Hop” and “Rap-Musik,” of course, if they’re “cool.” If they watch “TV” they probably avoid “Gameshows” and “Talkshows”–the realm of the uncool–and prefer “Videoclips” on MTV.

One cable station fills the dead hours after midnight with uncommented footage of various “Raves,” especially last spring’s “Love Parade” in Berlin, a huge demonstration of resolute pleasure-seeking, a sort of urban Woodstock without illusions. The Love Parade’s motto, “One World One Future,” displayed in English on banners in mid-Berlin, is not unconvincing, even if global unity is being ushered in not by abstractions about peace, love, and understanding, but by CDs, McDonald’s, Gatorade, CNN, and the Internet. To paraphrase Brecht, “Fast Food,” then ethics. To be sure, the global suburb is peopled by the propertied: “Consumers of the world, unite!”

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I haven’t checked to see whether the “Love Parade” has its own “Homepage,” but it wouldn’t take too much “Surfen” on the “Web” to find out. Whether with a “Notebook” or a “Desktop,” many Germans and Austrians are connected to the “Internet.” As might be expected, being “online” means being hooked up to a flow of American English terms like “Software,” “Hardware,” “Bytes,” “E-mail” and “Internet Service Provider.” You can check (“checken”) all this out by going to “Yahoo Deutschland” or one of the other German search engines. “Heute schon yahoot?” (Did you yahoo yet today?)

Even before the “Computer” became the conduit for the English language and American ways of life, the movies, television, and pop music were transplanting names, images, and words from California and New York to Frankfurt and Linz. American “Stars” are as well-known here as in the US. As the movie audience nibbles its “Popcorn” at the “Cineplexx” in Salzburg this week it can see “The Mask of Zorro,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Dr. Dolittle” with Eddie Murphy, “The Horse Whisperer,” “Lost in Space,” “Mafia,” “Armageddon,” “Godzilla,” and “Out of Sight.”

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While I think it’s patronizing snobism to want to save the poor Austrians from such flagrant cultural imperialism–why shouldn’t they see the movies we watch?–it is too bad that most Americans will never see the other films in Salzburg this week–the cabaret film “Hinterholz 8,” or Niki List’s homegrown Austrian spoof “Heroes in Tyrol,” or “Lola rennt” (“Run Lola Run”), or the film version of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s novella “Krambambuli,” showing at the Mozart-Kino downtown. Too often we Americans do not benefit at all from the internationalism our culture has unleashed.

On television (public, cable, or satellite) this week you can enjoy the following American fare: “Full House,” “Mad About You,” “Baywatch,” “Star Trek Voyager,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “ER,” “The Simpsons,” “Alf” (remember “Alf”?–the Germans have never forgotten him), “Seinfeld,” “The Cosby Show,” “Married with Children,” “The Rockford Files,” “Friends,” “Suddenly Susan,” and “Who’s the Boss?”, to say nothing of the Hollywood movies, dubbed into German, but often with the original English titles (“Free Willy,” “Born to Be Wild,” “Bad Girls,” “Destiny,” “Tank Girl,” “Tin Men,” “Extremities,” and “Bananas.”)

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But how many Americans are aware that after 24 years, the venerable police drama “Derrick” with its popular star Horst Tappert ran its last episode this past week? It’s too bad–although they’re importing “Homicide ” and “Law and Order,” Germans and Austrians have long been creating cop shows of the same caliber (I happen to like the genre). But who in the US has ever seen “Derrick,” or “Scene of the Crime,” or “Kottan on the Case,” or “Kommissar Rex,” or any of the other good shows that are filmed on the streets of Munich, Berlin, or Vienna?

“Derrick” is seen in Japan, the Netherlands, France, Israel, in 100 countries, but not in the United States. Is it stupidity or arrogance that makes US producers think that foreign fare won’t play? (Maybe that’s the same thing.) A TV special marking the end of this era is called “Goodbye, Derrick.” Not “Auf Wiedersehen, Derrick,” but a farewell in the language of Edgar Wallace and Hollywood. This is not just faddish; it shows a certain sensitivity to the cultural position of a German television police drama: we’ve borrowed from America, but made it our own.

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There are many exceptions, but all in all Europeans are enriched by their knowledge of American culture. They learn English, and they’re globally oriented in a way that Americans simply are not, even though the means of global understanding through business, music, film, TV, and computers were largely developed in the US. Paradoxically, instead of using technology to bring the world to us, we use it to tell us our own stories to ourselves, over and over again.

You may protest that CNN and CSPAN bring the world to us, and indeed they are better than nothing. But while I can watch CNN here in Austria, I can also watch German news, Austrian news, and French news, and I could watch Italian news too if I could understand Italian.

While I can hear Madonna and the Beastie Boys, I can also hear Such a Surge and Rainhard Fendrich. While I can see “Der Soldat James Ryan,” I can also see “Solo fuer Klarinette” (Solo for Clarinet), a current German movie drawing much attention. American culture is available, even dominant, but not exclusive.

Granted, some broadcasters like RTL in Germany have succeeded in importing or imitating the worst of American TV. The “Talkshow” is now a fixture on German cable and satellite (still the only forms of purely commerical TV in Germany and Austria), and it is just as tasteless as at home. “The Wildest Police Chases in the World” is probably not the best ambassador of America. On the other hand, at least its viewers know that America exists, that it has big cars, wide roads, and desperately stupid drivers. They have seen it. What have Americans seen of Germany on television or in the movies? Not much.

So, even though a group of lexicographers in Germany called last week for contributions to translating English borrowings into “real” German, I am not concerned about Americanism ruining German and Austrian culture. Germanic tribes learned to make wine from the Romans, Caribbean islanders turned oil company junk into steel drums, South Africans claimed the electric guitar as their own, and British guys like Van Morrison and Eric Clapton turned Black American music into something that Black Americans like to listen to too: cultural clashes and exchanges have always been productive as well as destructive.

The Germans and Austrians, I trust, are smart enough to know which parts of American culture they want and which ones they have no use for. The “leveling” of culture is as much the triumph of the petit bourgeois (culturally dominant in the US) as it is an Americanization.

To throw out popular culture and its language because it is not German enough, or not “authentic” (whatever that might be), or not sophisticated, would not only be arrogant, it would be as foolish as if we threw out diplomacy and its language because it is French. Any attache worth her dossier seeks detente and rapprochement with as much finesse and elan as she can muster, without worrying about French cultural imperialism.

Besides, American culture is transformed when it is adopted. This dialectic is reflected in strange ways. David Hasselhoff is known in Germany not only as the star of “Baywatch,” but also as a singer. A singer? Something in the German taste (or lack of it–Germans invented kitsch, after all) can stomach this idea even if this American export never made it as a crooner in the US.

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The live event of the year, with David Hasselhoff. 

The dialectic is also reflected in the language, in the form of words and phrases that are English but not English at the same time, that somehow convey international panache (that pesky French again), but are puzzling to native speakers. “Happy ending” has become “Happy End” in German. An emcee is a “Showmaster.” Clearly English, but clearly not a word we use. And the now-ubiquitous cell phone is known here as a “Handy.” An English word, but who in Cleveland or Liverpool would know what you’re talking about?

And so English, mostly American English, pours in more and more. Commercials revel in it. Business pages cannot get by without “Joint Ventures” and “Crossrates.” “Singles” and “Teenager” buy “Singles” and “CDs,” the “Chartbreakers” they hear on “Melody FM” during “Drivetime.” Sheryl Crow is as big as she is in the US, and so are “Boygroups” like the Backstreet Boys.

But where is the reverse flow? Every German fan of Hip-Hop knows who Busta Rhymes is, but how many Americans get to hear Moses P., a German purveyor of fine rap? Granted, the heavy-metal group “Rammstein” (a pun on the name of a NATO air base) has had German-language hits recently in the US, but this is the exception that proves the rule. The last spate of German music on US radio was over 15 years ago (Nena, Falco, Trio). This does not mean that German pop musicians stopped making music with German lyrics after 1983.

Maybe because so many cultures are within our borders, we don’t need to hear German rock or Italo-pop. Maybe because we do so well exporting our shows, we don’t have an economic need to import others’.

But the economic power of the Hollywood industry isn’t all that keeps foreigners out. There is a corresponding aesthetic, something about the products themselves that recycles our self-images and keeps us from seeing beyond them.

For Europeans and others around the world, American culture is a window, but for Americans it is a mirror. America send its images out to the world, and much of the world happily welcomes their casualness, their directness, their fun. Americans themselves, however, don’t follow those images across the planet. America sells but it doesn’t buy. It stays at home, busy at its transmitter, only it hasn’t turned on its receiver. America is everywhere and nowhere.

 

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Letter from Salzburg, Sept. 11, 1998

NOTE: When I was directing Bowling Green State University’s study-abroad program in Salzburg, Austria, in 1998-99, I wrote a series of letters to the faculty list back at BGSU. I got wonderful responses, so I kept writing them! This is the first one, from September, 1998. It reflects on changes since my last previous stay, in 1993-94.

 

Dear Colleagues at BGSU,

Greetings from Salzburg, Austria. I am here for the third time now to

direct our Academic Year Abroad program for juniors and first-year

master’s students. It is a great opportunity for them to improve their

German and learn to live in a foreign culture. The program celebrated

its 30th anniversary this year and is well set up to provide the

students with a challenging but organized international experience.

This year 26 students will participate. I thought it might be nice

occasionally to send reports and impressions back to BGSU.

 

Goodbye to the Schilling

What has changed since I last left in 1994? Quite a bit, actually. I

showed my passport to enter Austria between planes in Brussels,

because for the past half year Austria has been a member of the

Schengen group of European Union countries, who have dropped their

interior borders. Austria joined the EU in 1995 and will participate

in the currency union that begins in January 1999, so we will soon (by

2002) say goodbye to the Schilling coin with its Edelweiss blossoms,

and Sigmund Freud on the 50-Schilling bill.

 

In 1990, it was impossible to shop on Saturday afternoons. In 1994,

the first Saturday of each month was a “long Saturday” with shops open

until 5 pm. Now, many stores stay open every Saturday until 4 or 5.

The Saturday-morning ritual of rushing to get your shopping done for

two days (stores are closed on Sundays) is past. Yet the Saturday afternoon

feeling that you can and should do something besides

contribute to the economy is also gone. Sundays still have that

feeling, but I can only predict that the dominance of economics and

convenience will expand and even Austria will see shopping 24-7, as

the saying goes.

 

The consequences of Austria’s shift toward convenience are immediately

visible. In the Old Town, the heart of Salzburg and the reason why

tourists come from all over Europe, Japan, and the US, there are many

empty storefronts. Why? It’s easier for people to go to the big

shopping centers on the outskirts of town and park easily and for free

than to brave the narrow, often cobblestoned streets and search for

tiny parking spots or pay to park in one of the garages carved out of

the rocky hills among which the city is nestled.

 

Imitations of imitations

As business hours expand (evening hours are also more liberal than

before), only big stores with lots of of overhead and large staffs

will be able to compete, and even more of the mom-and-pop stores

(called “Tante Emma Shops” here) will go under. Genuine quaintness—

butchers, bakers, grocers, stationers, and cafes that real people use

along with the tourists—will give way to subsidized attempts at being

a “real” old town.

 

This kind of thing is already in evidence. Across from Mozart’s

birthplace—although a museum, it’s really the house he was born in–

there is something called “Mozartland.” It is full of spin-off

merchandise based on cartoonized characters of young Mozart and his

family that are shameless Disney ripoffs, in other words, imitations

of imitations. The real Cafe Mozart–a classy, classic old

coffeeshop–is out of business, replaced by Mozartland’s “Mozart

Cafe,” designed solely to draw tourists.

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Mozart’s birthplace, Getreidegasse, Salzburg, 1998. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 

 

“Community”: support and cooperation within a group that cannot afford to avoid each other.

On the other hand, the reason Austrians used to live crowded in

cities, ride buses instead of driving private cars, and use specialty

shops instead of supermarkets is because they couldn’t afford anything

else, and women stayed at home to do all that daily shopping.

“Community” can be defined as support and cooperation within a group

that cannot afford to avoid each other.

 

Now the Austrians, with country houses, nice cars, and shopping

centers, can afford to can the quaintness. The trick is to keep people

thinking that you’re authentic even as you abandon authenticity for

reality. Otherwise the tourist trade might dry up, too, and there goes

the affluence that allowed you to be modern.

 

The specialization of space 

It’s a dilemma that we don’t encounter as often in the US, because

long ago we made the choice for the horn of plenty. As a teenager I

experienced the death of my hometown downtown as the malls grew. The

specialization of space continues so that people live, shop, and work

in entirely separate worlds, and we are so eager to avoid each other

that we will use prime farm land (wrested by Anthony Wayne from the

Indians) for the purpose of putting space between us.

 

Occasionally there is a whimper from the other side of the question,

and we get an argument over whether to build a mall on the site of the

Battle of Fallen Timbers. I don’t think we should, but it will

certainly be a fitting tribute. Tecumseh (eventually) died so that we

can shop on Sundays.

 

Monuments and mementos

For the time being, though, when I come to Salzburg I still live where

people work and engage in commerce. I prefer to ride the bus, even

though we have a car, because all too often the convenience of

individual transportation means sitting through four lights just to

get through an intersection. On the bus at least you can hear the

people cursing at you.

 

I love the quality of food and drink whose main purposes are not to be

prepared as quickly as possible, to appeal to as many people as

possible, and to survive a 2000-mile ride in a semi truck. I also

enjoy being a tourist, having the old monuments and mementos all

around me, and I trust they’ll stay here as long as their ability to

attract foreign tourists exceeds their ability to frustrate native

shoppers.

 

Until next time,

Geoff Howes

(Written September 1998)

The Demon Returns

Is your main friend someone who’s an old acquaintance of ours?– Bob Dylan

I was diagnosed in 2002 with endogenous depression. In retrospect, I could recall many times over the previous twenty-five years when I had been in depressive episodes: Feeling no emotion at getting accepted to every graduate school I had applied for. Deciding that leaving my graduate program was the only solution to my inexplicable dissatisfaction. (If nothing is right, everything is wrong, so maybe changing everything will work?) Arriving in scenic Austria for the first time and not being able to take my nose out of the paperback thriller that gripped me and scared me—at least that was a glimmer of feeling. Getting invited to celebrate my birthday at a beer garden with my students and not being able to convince myself that they didn’t mean it ironically, that they weren’t taunting my obvious inability to enjoy myself by making me pretend I was. Walking across campus to teach a graduate class and suddenly realizing that I did not care one bit whether anybody learned anything, and feeling trapped because I was not insane enough just to give up.

Over that quarter century, I had enjoyed a lot of things, and accomplished a lot of things, including getting married to a wonderful woman and having a wonderful son. Getting a good job. Regular stays in Europe. Articles published, an editorship. The marvelous continual contact with youth and change that the university affords. But there were always those episodes that broke it up, completely illogical, out of all proportion to my actual misfortune (which was little) and my actual reasons for satisfaction (which were many).

Luckily, in 2002 we (my wife, my therapist, my doctor, and I) arrested the progress of the disease before it broke me. Fortunately, I responded immediately to the amitryptiline I was prescribed, and I found out that sleeping through the night was not an unattainable luxury. I could hear music better and see objects more clearly. I recall two symbolic moments in my recovery. The first was attending the meeting where my promotion to full professor was announced, and not feeling a trace of that old irony, that sense that if they only knew how little I deserve this! The second was walking into a gallery room at MOMA and suddenly seeing four large Gerhard Richter seascapes, each taking up a wall. I wept spontaneously. For joy.

16485Gerhard Richter, Seestück (Gegenlicht) / Seascape (Contre-jour) 1969

I had actually self-diagnosed long before this, but didn’t think I was in bad enough shape to seek professional treatment. This of course is part of the disease: if you think you’re not worth much, you’re certainly not worth using up other people’s time. I found a book in a Salzburg bookstore in 1990: Depression as Opportunity. The opportunity part didn’t impress me, but the symptoms listed all matched, except for suicidal thoughts and loss of appetite. I quit caffeine and started caffeine again. I numbed myself with doses of alcohol, not enough to depress me more, but enough to cut the anxiety. At some point I started to take St. John’s wort—and it worked for a while. Or maybe not—it might have been normal remission. I had anxiety-related conditions like shingles and prostatitis. Once I found a chart listing points for stressful life events and added mine up: I was a candidate for hospitalization. But I wasn’t in the hospital, which of course proved them wrong.

Then in the fall of 2001, everything seemed to be leaving me. Loss and fear of loss were the tenor of my life. The only time I felt the least bit whole was when playing music with others. And then that too seemed threatened by loss, and became the the worst source of pain instead of the only source of healing. One night I could not sleep and could not stop crying. (How hard that is to write!) My wife gave me specific instructions: make an appointment with a therapist we knew. Make an appointment with my doctor. I did. What a relief to have someone else—a professional—confirm what I had surmised, guessed, feared, and known at some level all those years. I was a diligent patient. In time I even asked to have my dosage upped by half. (In sixteen years, I can remember only one day I didn’t take my pills because I had forgotten them on an overnight trip.) I was lucky. I read Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and William Styron’s Darkness Visible and saw that my case was not so bad. I experienced recurrences, disthymia, flat affect, unfocused anxiety, but I always remembered what it was like not to be depressed, and I had learned it would pass.

So I was living my life for the most part with vigor and purpose. I started to put other aspects of my life in order, including my general health, although there are still loose ends even now. I enjoyed my job. I stayed productive, and really thought I was making a difference when I taught young people. I went six years with only minor and temporary depressive events. I thought I was in permanent recovery.

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But that spring of 2008, stresses were mounting. The general morale at the university was suffering under administrative changes. Three of us were trying to do the same work that seven people had done only a few years earlier. I had agreed to help a colleague out with a demanding project because the project was so worthwhile. It didn’t occur to me to say no.

And that should have been a signal to me that all was not right. I had no right to say no. My interests were insignificant compared to those of others who seemed to have a reason for what they were doing. There were other signals: snapping at a colleague for what I assumed was a criticism, which was nothing of the sort. Dwelling on perceived slights two or three or more years old. Creating an iTunes playlist titled “Melancholia.” Organizing an outreach program for 400 high-school students and feeling nothing when it was over: no satisfaction, no relief, nothing but a grudging wonder that anyone might have enjoyed the thing. Widespread plagiarism in a class made me doubt the entire efficacy and purpose of education as I wavered between feeling like the students had wanted to dupe me and that they were irreparably dumb. I thought obsessively about retirement: how soon could I get out of this?

I had already taken steps—deciding to increase my dosage, calling my therapist—and had already had one therapy session before I viewed my disparate symptoms together and realized: the noonday demon was back. One morning before a therapy session I picked up Peter Kramer’s Against Depression and thought I was reading about other people with depression when I came across that classic list of ten symptoms. I had five of them. And for much longer than the two weeks that puts you in the clinical range. I had been looking outside of me for the reasons I felt so bad, and there seemed to be enough of them. But suddenly I knew: this was different. This was inside of me. I was almost excited when I announced to my therapist that day that I had figured it out.

I know a lot about depression. I’ve had forty years of direct experience. I see it in others a lot, because I know and am related to afflicted people. I’ve read a lot about it. I accepted the fact that I had it and, with help, put myself on the road to recovery. And even though I had all the evidence in front of me, I still didn’t see that I was in a full-blown episode. I thought I had put that behind me.

With therapy and an increased dosage I quickly stabilized. Feeling better again, I realize how long—at least three months—I was so far gone that I had forgotten what feeling good is. Not euphoric, not always cheery, but with an even chance to make life work. I have a new-found respect for the demon, that old acquaintance of ours. And even more resolve not to let him back up out of the basement again.

(Revised version. Originally written in 2008.)

A Letter from Salzburg (November 1998)

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Main Station, Salzburg, 1992. Photo credit: ÖBB    https://blog.oebb.at/oesterreichs-bahnhoefe-damals-heute/

NOTE: When I was directing Bowling Green State University’s study-abroad program in Salzburg, Austria, in 1998-99, I wrote a series of letters to the faculty list back at BGSU. I got wonderful responses, so I kept writing them! This is one from November, 1998. It is mostly a remembered monologue by a woman I met on the train.  (I have rendered her speech as colloquial, not to condescend, but to show its relative distance from the standard written language.)

 

Life in Postwar Austria: An Oral Report

[I’ll let my train-compartment acquaintance tell her own story, which

includes, explicitly and implicitly, some themes of Austrian life: the

past vs. the present, rural vs. urban life, regionalism, families,

class distinctions, the importance of one’s dwelling, the ambivalent

relationship to authority, and the distance between ideal and reality.

I suppose these are themes of American life, too, but here they are

with an Austrian twist–Geoff Howes]

 

The scene: The 7:30 a.m. train from Salzburg to Vienna. It is Oct. 26,

the Austrian National Holiday, which commemorates the signing of the

law establishing Austrian independence and neutrality in 1955, although many Austrians

think it’s because that’s the day the last Allied soldier left

Austria. Offices and stores are closed, but of course the trains are

running. I arrive early and find a window seat in an empty

compartment. I get out my book, hardly cracked, and look forward to

reading for three and a half hours.

 

It is not to be. A middle-aged woman sticks her head in and asks if

the seats are free. Of course. She sits down across from me and starts

to talk. She had been in another compartment, but there were

foreigners there, and she just doesn’t feel comfortable with them. (I

resist telling her the shocking news that I’m a foreigner too.) She’s

going to Steyr to the “Christmas the Whole Year Round” exhibit. Maybe

she’ll find something nice for her grandchildren. She has to change

trains in St. Valentin. These kids have treats all the time. Not like

when she was young. “Then it was a cake on your birthday, and some

fruit and nuts at Christmas, and a little bit of candy on St.

Nicholas’ Day, but otherwise, no treats. We didn’t even eat meat,

except sometimes on Sundays. Times were different then, I can tell

you. These kids have cake and candy every day.

 

“You’re from America? Well, I’m sure you had to work hard for what you

got, too. Even in America there aren’t roast pigeons flying into your

mouth. Nobody hands it to you on a silver platter. I grew up in the

country, and we had to work hard. I like to work. I worked for twenty

years for the state government, in the Michael Pacher Strasse. I was a

telephone operator. Nowadays they don’t need telephone operators, the

computers do it all. But the service ain’t as good, and I especially

liked being friendly to the people. I don’t know why I had to retire.

Now I don’t do nothing all day. I’d fill in for vacation time for free

if they’d let me. That’s how much I liked to work. I’d do it for free.

Now I just collect my pension check.

 

“I grew up in the country. My mother worked on the mayor’s farm. He

was the biggest businessman in the village and the mayor, too. A fine

man. That was a different class of person in those days, I’ll tell

you. Both my husband and I were love children. My mother was in love

with the mayor’s son, and they were all ready to get married after

they had my brother, but then the mayor didn’t allow it because he

couldn’t have his son marrying one of the help. Then I came along too,

but they never did get married. Same with my husband. We’re both love

children.

 

“No, I’m not from Salzburg. I grew up in Carinthia. We’re a mixed

family! My husband is Styrian, I’m Carinthian, and my children are

Salzburgers. My son and his wife, they’re the ones with the two

daughters, have a house in Hallein, on the Duerrenberg. It’s an old

house, but they’ve really fixed it up. Spent all kinds of time and

money on it. I told them for the same money they could have got a new

house but for some reason they wanted to fix up this old one. First

they got it restuccoed and then they put on a new roof. You should

probably do it the other way around. They put in new plumbing, a new

bathroom, all new tile work. It’s very nice. But it took them a long

time and a lot of money. They did some of it themselves, but for some

of the work they had contractors do it. It would have cost less if

they’d had the contractors do it on their own time, but if you do

that, then you can’t make a claim for bad workmanship, because they

weren’t working legitimate in the first place.

 

“I change trains in St. Valentin. That ain’t for a while yet. What do

you think of the Austrian landscape, coming from America? Beautiful,

ain’t it? But they keep building more and more. Pretty soon there

won’t be no landscape left. All those new buildings. I worked in the

building inspectors’ office for the state government, on the

switchboard. You wouldn’t believe some of the things that happened

then. They let buildings go up and then it turned out they weren’t up

to code, and they knew it the whole time. Some of them were corrupt,

but not my boss. He was good to us. They did bridges, too.

 

“Yeah, we handled all of the building in Salzburg in those days. It

was a busy time. They were always building something. At the Christmas

parties we got together with the commissioners and everybody. They

invited us switchboard girls too. We thought we would go in together

and get the building commissioner a cake. He ate the whole thing all

at once! We said, did you like the cake. He said yes. We looked for

it, but he had eaten it all.

 

“But they treated us real good. I enjoyed going to work every day. I

lived just around the corner, so of course I had to fill in when

somebody was sick or the weather was bad and they couldn’t get in. But

I didn’t mind. I’d work for them now if they’d let me. They treated me

real good. I liked to work, and I don’t know why I had to retire.

“Got something wrong with my hand, it swelled up this big last week.

Don’t really know what’s wrong with it. I was picking flowers with my

grandkids and maybe I got hold of some poisonous plant. It swelled up

real big. Maybe it’s a pinched nerve, though. The doctors couldn’t

tell me. I spent the whole week going from the emergency room to the

internal medicine ward to a specialist, and now the swelling’s down

some and it don’t hurt as much but I still don’t know what’s wrong. I

honestly think they made it worse. This inflammation wasn’t here until

after the doctor felt my hand. They gave me something to rub on it. I

have to go back tomorrow.

 

“This is Wels. I don’t change until St. Valentin. I think that might

be the next stop. I’m going to Steyr. Maybe I can find something nice

for the grandchildren. Lots of people getting on here. Gruess Gott!

Yes, these seats are free. Please sit down. I’m staying on until St.

Valentin. I’m going to ‘Christmas the Whole Year Round.’ Have you been

there yet? They’re supposed to have some nice stuff. I hope they’re

open on the holiday. Maybe I can find something real nice for the

grandchildren . . .”

Christmas among the Heathens

We weren’t Christian, but we kept Christmas. My mother subscribed to the Dickensian school of yule revellers. Each year, a month before Christmas, she would make a plum pudding, which to my single-digit mind did not look like pudding, and since I helped her make it, I knew it didn’t have plums in it, but lots of candied fruit and a little flour, and some suet.

One year my mother sent me down to Trent’s Market to buy the suet (she was tied to the house by her brood of six), and I can picture her handwriting on the note she wrote for me to give to the butcher: suet. Come to find out it’s just fat, but in later years she had to special-order it (and the goose) because it was no longer a standard item in the butcher case.

The plum pudding was wonderfully intense after being turned out of the fluted metal form and  flambéed and served with hard sauce, which didn’t look like sauce, but it was hard, like fossilized whipped cream.

Unlike any other family I knew, we did not have turkey at Christmas, but goose. A small, dark bird that like the plum pudding concentrated its flavor and substituted quality for quantity. I have an early oral memory of biting through the crisp, oily skin into the seriously dark meat. There was no white meat.

Another necessity for Christmas dinner was rutabaga, that big yellow turnip that was peeled, chunked, boiled and mashed, and produced a pale orange cousin to the mashed potatoes, not as hearty, and a little insipid, if “insipid” can have a positive connotation. A root vegetable we ate only twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and its rarity made it taste good too.

On Grove Street we didn’t have a fireplace, so we hung our stockings with care on the drawer pulls of a chest in the living room. I have an image of Santa Claus coming through the front door instead of down the chimney, since we didn’t have one. I never saw him, but I pictured him stepping in off the porch, and I appreciated his flexibility.

We knew about Santa mainly through the ritual reading of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” on Christmas Eve. We’d gather around my father, whose deep voice (which I did not inherit) was laced with the aroma of pipe smoke as he read the magic words. “And Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap / had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.” What a strange world, where people wore hats to bed! And I loved the idea of settling my brain — it’s something I still struggle to do — and I’m sure that our folks were hoping we could settle them too, in our half-crazed anticipation of waking up from a winter’s nap that we hoped wouldn’t be too long.

When we did awake (on Christmas you don’t just wake up, you awake) we had to examine our stockings before turning to the presents under the tree. You put your whole arm down the sock to find Brazil nuts, almonds, filberts, walnuts, and pecans, and a tangerine, and a Droste chocolate apple, from Holland. To this day I’m disappointed when I have to settle for chocolate apples of some other brand, or — sacrilege of sacrileges — a chocolate orange.

I knew we were celebrating Jesus’s birth, and I knew about the star and the shepherds and the wise men, and I knew and loved the songs and their mysterious language: “God rest ye merry gentlemen.” What was “ye”? “How still we see thee lie.” What was “thee”? “The joys and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I understood joys and fears, and all the years. There’s a wondrous melancholy in those lines that I felt at an early age.

I didn’t know that people considered Jesus divine, and I didn’t have any concept of God. We were humanist children, pint-sized agnostics without knowing it. In our Howes exceptionalism (which I didn’t yet know was so exceptional, and I didn’t yet know how much our family identity depended so much on being different) we had warm, pajama-clad family Christmas mornings that celebrated midwinter, and generosity, and plenty, and we did it without a god or church.

I know you might say that God was in our midst, even if we didn’t call it that, and you’re welcome to put it that way. But it was Scrooge’s rebirth as much as Jesus’s birth that guided us in those days. The possiblity of reaching into ourselves to find the hopes and fears of all the years, to discover a warmth and a hope that were mysterious and all the more enduring for being nameless.

A Sled Ride in the Alps

A Sled Ride in the Alps

Between New Year’s Day and Epiphany in 1983, our friend from the University of Klagenfurt, Tina Macher, invited Christen and me to visit her family in St. Lambrecht, an Alpine market town in Styria, Austria. St. Lambrecht is home to an architecturally significant Benedictine abbey and a dynamite factory. At that time, the factory was owned by the Swedish firm Nobel Industries, but now it belongs to Austin Powder, based in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Macher family was very hospitable. Tina took us to see the magnificent eighteenth-century manger scene in the abbey church, with over 130 figures and a mountain backdrop over six feet tall. Her father was the game warden for the local woods, and he showed us home movies of stags at the salt lick and feeding station, and we met the large eagle owl (German Uhu) he kept in protective captivity. One night we ate stag liver and mashed potatoes—delicious! And Tina let us help her make apple strudel, which involved stretching a single piece of dough to cover a large dining-room table.

The unforgettable centerpiece of our visit, however, was the evening we went sledding. We set off in the afternoon with two European style sleds, which sit higher and are shorter than a Radio Flyer and are made entirely of wood, except for strips of metal on the underside of the curled runners.

Tina didn’t tell us the details of what we were about to do. We got on a bus full of skiers heading up the local mountain, the Grebenzen (about 1800 m / 6000 ft). I recall hearing music on the bus by Falco’s former punk group, Drahdiwaberl, singing a song called “Lonely,” which sounds like Ruben and the Jets and has the unforgettable line “I asked the Lord up above / what is this thing morals [sic] call love?”

When we got above the tree line, to the bottom of the ski slopes and the beginning of the t-bar lift, Tina hailed friends of hers on the lift and asked them to drag our sleds up the mountain. (Tina had been hailing friends of hers all day—St. Lambrecht has about 1000 residents.) We trudged up through the snow along the course of the ski lift until we reached the top of the mountain, from which we could see over toward Klagenfurt, which was shrouded in fog, as it often was.

We went to the ski lodge and met the owners and more friends of Tina’s. We had some nice homemade schnapps (which is not syrupy, but clear like vodka) and fresh-baked rye bread, and Tina’s friends gave us some loaves of bread to take back to her family.

The last skiers left the lodge for the last run before sunset, but we were still sitting in the lodge, wondering what was to become of the sledding expedition. We soon found out. As the skiers disappeared below in the blue twilight, we sat on our sleds, me on one and Christen sitting behind Tina on the other, at the top of the ski slope, and pushed off.

A sled can go very fast on a ski slope. Very fast. I was also in charge of keeping the fresh rye bread under my coat, but I managed to hold onto it the one time I wiped out. The snow powder flew, and we flew until we reached the tree line. The slopes were behind us, but our run was just beginning.

We got on a path that wound down the side of the mountain through the woods. It was dark, but there must have been occasional lights, because I never ran into a tree. You steer a European sled with your feet directly on the ground, and  ice was building up on my pant legs. I remember looking down and seeing the lights of the village far below, and it was beautiful, like an impossible postcard. The whole run lasted about one and a half hours. The trail led us directly into St. Lambrecht, and we went home and warmed up, for a long time.

Christen told me later that as they descended, Tina would indicate points of interest such as a spot where one friend had cracked his head open and another had broken her leg. And Tina kept calling out, “Look out for the pumps!” Christen wondered why there were pumps along the mountain trail, and hoped Tina could steer around them. Then she realized Tina was saying “bumps” with an Austrian accent.

Tina was a student of English at Klagenfurt, so we often spoke English as well as German. Her father liked to try out his English too, and the afternoon before we went sledding, which was the day after an attempted cross-country skiing outing that had been foiled by freezing rain, he asked where Christen was. I said she was upstairs taking a nap, and he said sympathetically, “Ah, she’s upstairs collecting power.”

As it turned out, she needed more power than she could have guessed to make the unforgettable sled run down the Grebenzen in the early days of January 1983, still vivid almost thirty-four years later.

Book Review: Sabine Gruber, Daldossi oder Das Leben des Augenblicks (2016)

Sabine Gruber, Daldossi oder Das Leben des Augenblicks (Daldossi or Life in the Moment). Munich: C. H. Beck, 2016.

Sabine Gruber’s new novel moves in the world of war photographers and war correspondents. Bruno Daldossi is a war photographer from South Tyrol whose mixed German-speaking Austrian and Italian identities are only the beginning of his ambivalances and ambiguities. Having spent much of his career in combat zones and scenes of revolution and forced migration, he cannot really come to rest, even though he needs rest and belonging. He is compulsively competitive: with his colleagues, with his romantic rivals, and even with his romantic interests. One of his coping mechanisms is the act of photography itself. “Solange ich photographiert habe, war ich ruhig” (“As long as I was taking photographs, I was at peace”), he reflects late in the book. Another coping mechanism is self-medication with alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, and sedatives. And a chief mechanism is not staying in one place. He knows these habits are destructive, but less destructive than the dangerous worlds he inhabits, and which now inhabit him in the form of memories.

Much of the novel consists of memories: short-term, long past, triggered by or hardened into images. The few days of present action of the novel, which take him from the Austrian countryside to Vienna to Venice to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, are filled with Daldossi’s memories. The theaters of war crowd into his head nearly as randomly as articles in an online news feed, except that they have a subjective causal logic and a persistence that allows them to outdo the here and now. “Daldossis Gedankenschalter hatte die Angewohnheit, hartnäckig in seinem Zustand zu veharren, es war kein Standby möglich, die Bilder ließen sich nicht wegklicken, die Wörter nicht streichen, es sei denn, Daldossi hatte getrunken oder er war endlich, meist mit Hilfe von Beruhigungsmitteln, eingeschlafen” (“The toggle switch in Daldossi’s mind had the habit of sticking tenaciously to his condition. There was no standby. The images could not be clicked away, the words couldn’t be deleted, unless Daldossi had either been drinking or had finally—usually with the aid of sedatives—fallen asleep”).

Personal connections or visual reminders call up pictures of Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt in the Arab Spring, or South Sudan. These images tear Daldossi out of the present moment so that life, past or present, gets stuck in the moments of the subtitle. The narrative thread consists less of continuity than of interruptions, torn by personal conflicts, the intrusion of others’ needs, or moving on to the next location. Even when escaping his assignments—and his assignations—Daldossi reacts to the new emptiness (emptiness of experience, of emotion, of the landscape) by giving himself new assignments.

The narrative permits empathy with this damaged man even as it reveals his self-destruction. The novel does not come down on one side or the other of the classic conflict of the war photographer: he records extremes of human suffering without doing anything to alleviate them. This dilemma hounds Daldossi, although he also knows that those who make that judgment would not be able to sympathize with the victims without first learning of them through war journalism. A crucial subplot involves his helping out two female refugees in Vienna, but he hardly recognizes his own altruism because it is obscured by a sense of obligation, of the built-in guilt of the observer who doesn’t act.

The human connections that could bring him some peace and quiet cannot stand up to his restlessness and contradictions. So he loses his lover Marlis, who escapes to Venice. He rashly travels to Venice to find her, unsure what he will do when he does, and ends up drunk and on the streets, a refugee for one night. At the same time, Johanna is attracted to him and has asked him to accompany her to Lampedusa, a tiny southern outpost of Europe, where she has been sent to fill in for a colleague reporting on the refugee situation. He finally decides to join her there, where he does not have to distinguish so neatly between his professional and personal identities, but is no less restless.

Sabine Gruber’s novel is set squarely in our times, with invasions, civil wars, refugee crises, and the identity crisis of the educated, liberal middle class of Europe (but not only of Europe). This is our world, where instant communication both enables and threatens interpersonal relations as well as international relations. We have too much information, and yet not enough information that could guide us. We are forced into improvising and constantly adjusting to the conditions on the ground, and Daldossi’s moments are a particularly concentrated version of this circumstance.

Yet the novel does not depend on current events for its relevance; rather it proceeds from the particular human predicaments embedded in these events. Thus the narrative makes current events relevant, not the other way around. All globalism is local. While Daldossi’s moments are associated with each other thematically or visually in his roving mind, they are anchored in particular times and places. Gruber fixes these times and places with the narrative invention of describing rather than reproducing Daldossi’s photos, which are then summarized in captions. Local events are given global significance by photography—or by narrative—but only if they are not wrested from their time and place, or from the hands of those who live, suffer, or die there and then.

Daldossi oder das Leben des Augenblicks is steeped in the melancholy of its protagonist, but it is remarkably free of antagonists, of the easy but made-up targets we all know from online comments sections. Nearly every character is trying hard, but that is never enough. The author allows the moments of human connection, of recognizing the humanity of another, to shine among all this tarnish. They do not outshine it, but they make it bearable—at least for the moment, and moments are all we have.

Geoff Howes