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
“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 . . .”
I kept a diary while I was in Salzburg and when it came time to leave my tiny room behind the train station pictured above, I put it in a box with all the books I had accumulated over the year. When the box finally arrived two months after I got back to the States, most of the contents were gone, including the diary. But they were replaced by a red leather boot and a matching purse filled with Ritter Sport and Manner. A pretty decent trade off, but I’d rather have had the diary.