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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.

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A parable, adapted for 2016

Adapted from the Gospel according to Luke, 10:25-37, in the King James Version

by Geoff Howes

 

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side, saying, all lives matter, and if I help him I will be ignoring all other lives.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side, saying, he probably had a criminal record and so he deserved to be wounded. Else why would he be among thieves?
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
And the host said, I suppose you Samaritans now think you are the shit, acting all holier than thou and shit.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
And he said, all of them, because all lives matter.
Then said Jesus unto him, WTF dude, were you even paying attention?

Nerve Stories

One morning I was sitting in the admissions pavilion at the Otto Wagner Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna, Austria, waiting to hear how a student was doing who had been brought there the night before after a psychotic break. This hospital is known popularly by its older name “Steinhof,” after the area where it was built and opened in 1907.

I had come to Steinhof by taxi the night before, when the student was admitted. It was one or two a.m., and the taxi driver got worried as we entered the campus-like complex on a hillside in the dark. I didn’t know which of the many pavilions we needed to get to, so I said we should look out for the ambulance that had brought the student. We spotted it at a lit-up loading dock two levels down the hill from where we were, and the cab driver relaxed.

He asked me what was going on. I explained briefly, and he summed it up: “Ah, eine Nervengeschichte.” In the thirteen years since, I have tried again and again to translate this phrase and the best I can do is to give a couple of possibilities that, taken together, perhaps start to suggest what the cabbie’s empathetic yet gently trivializing appraisal meant: “Ah, a mental thing.” “Ah, a nerve business.” “Ah, a psychiatric case.” (German still blends “nervous” and “mental” when talking about psychiatric and neurological matters.) My favorite version is the most literal and hence least informative one: “Ah, a nerve story.”

As I sat in the admissions ward, I watched a motley group of patients, still unsorted, milling about. One dark-haired young man in a hospital gown, his lower lip drooping, was drooling like the caricature of a mental patient as he walked straight up to whoever was in his path, dodging away only at the last moment. I noticed a distinguished looking middle-aged gentleman with white stubble on his chin, also wearing a flimsy, shapeless garment, and also pacing up and down.

I, with my dark full beard, was wearing a black winter jacket and a felt fedora. The gentleman stopped in front of me and said, “Shalom.” I replied, “Shalom.” He went on his way, but soon came back. This time he said one or two sentences in what I could tell was Hebrew, but did not understand. “Sorry,” I said in German, “all I know is ‘shalom’.” His eyebrows arched. “Oh, are you not of the Mosaic religious persuasion?” “No, I’m not.”

He walked quickly away, then turned around and apologized politely and profusely that he had taken me for Jewish.

 

The student was admitted and spent a week and a half in the institution, and then was allowed to transfer to the Christian Doppler Clinic in Salzburg. Our study-abroad program is located at the University of Salzburg. In the long term, after several twists and turns, her nerve story had a positive ending.

 

Two or three weeks later, I was waiting for a bus at the Mirabell Square stop, which in those days was across from the Mozarteum music conservatory. I noticed a woman wearing a traditional Austrian dirndl dress walking in my direction and talking out loud to herself. You could hear her even a block away. People on the sidewalk studiously looked up, down, and sideways. As she approached, she made a beeline toward me, and as she came up I heard her saying, in German, “So, are you going to New York or Tel Aviv, or are you staying here in Salzburg?”

“I’ll stay here in Salzburg for a while, and then I’ll go home to the USA,” I said.

“Oh, you’re from the USA? I have some friends in the USA, Jewish friends, in New Hampshire, I’ve visited them there.” She rattled on a while, talking about her friends and the USA and intimating that she, too, was Jewish. Then she fixed her gaze on me. “You are Jewish, aren’t you?” “No, I’m not.”

“Oh, yes you are! I can tell by your beard!”

I wasn’t even wearing my black fedora.

My Short, Happy Pizza Career

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One morning in June 1974 I reported for work at Melio’s Heights Inn, a pizzeria and lounge in Madison Heights, Michigan. Dino, the manager, led me to the big stainless-steel sink with a spray nozzle and garbage disposal.

Next thing I knew, a stocky woman appeared across from me and said: “Scare me! What’s goin’ on? Louie s’posed to be trainin’ you, but Louie out somewhere fartin’ around.” Thus I met Exa Mae Davis, line cook at Melio’s and the spiritus rector of the Italian restaurant that would be my home for three months.

Exa Mae told me my first job was to strain several gallons of spaghetti sauce made the night before. I recall the fragrant, thick, cold paste disappearing through colander holes, leaving ham skins, onion chunks, and whole celery stalks as I stirred it all down with a giant steel spoon. Next, Exa Mae introduced me to the prep table with its gleaming slicer.

My main lunchtime job, though, was to make pizzas. Since then I’ve often said that being a pizza cook was my favorite job ever, except for being a college professor, and sometimes it even beat that.

You pick up a large, medium, or bar-size wad of dough and run it through a power roller twice to start flattening it out, and then you work the dough so that it thins in the middle while staying thicker at the edge, spreading it until it matches the desired size marked by a  concentric circle on a broad wooden paddle strewn with corn meal.

I did not toss the dough in the air. I didn’t want to waste all the dough required to get the 10,000 hours of experience I’ve heard is necessary for perfecting this maneuver (or playing the violin).

Once you have your blank canvas stretched, you ladle on tomato sauce, sprinkle on grated mozzarella, and then choose from the small steel tubs of toppings — pepperoni, green peppers, onions, black and green olives, ham, mushrooms, and an ancient can of anchovies.

You open the short, wide oven door, pick up the wooden paddle, and let the pizza glide over the corn meal onto the brick floor of the oven while you scoot the paddle back out. Meanwhile you have burnt off some hair if not some skin on your forearm as it touches the 500-degree oven door.

Exa Mae admired my pizza skills, saying that whenever she tried it, she always made “footballs.” Sometimes she’d sing her theme song, “Exa Me Mucho.” One day she asked me through the utensil rack that divided the cooks’ area from the pizza-assembly station: “Geoff, we all outa crabs. You got any?”

That was the summer that Nixon resigned. We heard his farewell address live on the kitchen radio. It was my first summer home after a freshman year at Michigan State. It was the summer of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Eres tú.”

Dino the manager did not micromanage. He trusted me to get the prep work done, to keep up with the lunch rush, and to drive his car to pick up extra chickens. He paid me in cash (above-board; withholding was hand-written on the pay envelope). He tended bar, too, and once a month he would disappear into his little office in back, which doubled as the liquor locker, and go on a day-long binge. Otherwise he didn’t touch the stuff.

The night crew came in around five. Zenobia, known to her friends as Noble, asked me in a husky voice: “Geoff, you got a girlfriend?” “Yeah.” “You should have six. One for every night of the week, and Sunday is the day of rest.” German John, the tall blond pizza cook who made the next day’s dough, didn’t say much.

Once Exa Mae gave me a history lesson. Dino was the son-in-law of Melio, the founder of the Heights Inn. “I remember the day Melio died. Had a heart attack right over there by the pop machine.” Exa Mae looked forward to getting off work: “Got a six pack o’ Miller’s in the trunk.”

One day after lunch rush I was eating some spaghetti instead of the bar-size pizza I’d usually make for myself. I was sitting in the dining room (usually off limits) with an attractive waitress whose name I don’t remember, who at over twenty years old was from another planet. I twirled my spaghetti onto my fork. She said: “Are you Italian? You eat like one.”

This waitress was the same one who took me to the hospital. I was working a few months later over Christmas break, cutting up chicken after chicken for a catering job, when the knife slipped and cut deep into the index finger of my left hand.

Dino asked the waitress to take me to a hospital. The closest one was Providence in Madison Heights. I heard my mother’s voice: “Don’t ever go to Providence Hospital.” My mother had few but definite opinions. The waitress’s mother had told her the same thing. We went to Beaumont in Royal Oak.

I had sliced into but not through a tendon. Fourteen stitches, two in the tendon and the rest in two layers of skin. Bad news for a mandolin player. I probably started using the finger again too soon.

My witty eighteen-year-old self said “I had a knife fight with a chicken, and the chicken won.”

And thus ended my career at Melio’s. Scare me!

The Almanac

There was a time when I listened to Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” on National Public Radio almost every day, but then I stopped listening so often because of the daily closing of the show: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

It felt more like a taunt than a good wish. I was not well, I was not doing good work, and I was not keeping in touch.

Even today, years later and in a much better mental and emotional state, I sometimes avoid clicking on the podcast. Just the memory of pointless guilt can reawaken pointless guilt.

The “Writer’s Almanac” always begins with the word “And”: “And this is the Writer’s Almanac for Friday, the nineteenth of June …”

That “and” can either be a sign that the days plod on and on, connected by a weary conjunction, or it can be a sign of continuity, that our lives are not merely additive, but have some sort of narrative in which meaning accretes and accrues.

And the poems—the poems can actually have an antidepressant effect, even or especially the tougher ones.

So now I usually do listen to that small daily serving of civilization. But when I do, I always think that there were times when I thought I was not well, did not do good work, did not keep in touch, and had forfeited the right to do anything about it.

Remembering like this is not wallowing, it is therapeutic. It is like looking at the high water mark on a plaque commemorating a historical flood. Imagining the water over your head can help you feel high and dry.

Egelsee bei Krems, January 1990

Just after New Year’s in 1990, when we had been living in Salzburg since late August and our son was not quite a year old, I decided I needed a change of scene from the demands of running a study-abroad program. In a brochure from a tourism bureau (this was way before the Internet) I found an old vintner’s house available as a vacation rental in the village of Egelsee (literally “Leech Lake”) up the hill from Krems on the Danube west of Vienna. I called the landlady, who was the wife of the Lutheran pastor in Krems, and booked the place for three nights.

On the autobahn trip from Salzburg to Krems I had occasion to use the fifth gear on the program Peugeot for the first time. I accidentally went from fourth to third, and I was afraid I might have damaged the transmission. We stopped at a rest area near Amstetten and had lunch. I ate very tasty Blunzengröstl (roughly “blood-sausage hash”) while worrying about whether the car would work when we got back on the road.

We found the woman’s house on Martin Luther Square in Krems and followed her car up hair-pin turns (the transmission being in fact intact) to Egelsee, a wine-growing village that was rapidly becoming a bedroom community. It was home to a motorcycle museum and several condominium construction sites.

We arrived in the village. I was relieved not to have swerved off the road into the dark pine woods. In the middle of the old quadratic house was a clay-and-tile stove for heating.  It extended into each of the four large rooms. (The Swiss writer Jürg Laederach calls such an arrangement “equal opportunity freezing.”) It was the only heat in the house. The landlady patiently told me how to stoke it and keep it going. I was worried that I would let it go out (she said it was very hard to get started again from scratch), causing my family to freeze to death in Leech Lake the week after New Year’s.

On the wooden kitchen table there was a big round of rye bread, probably a kilo, and a two-liter bottle of local Grüner Veltliner. These bottles are called Doppler, “doubles,” because they are double the size of a normal liter bottle. And of course, the result of drinking one of these is called the “Doppler effect.”

This was much better than a mint on the pillow, and I ate and drank happily, or at least eagerly. (Christen doesn’t drink, and so the Doppler wisely never got finished.) The oven door was in the kitchen, and I spent much of my time between bites of rye and swigs of white trying to put wood on the fire without extinguishing it. It was not good to open the door too often—it tended to put out the fire—but how else could I judge the embers? I have no memory of the bed in that house, or of how we slept, but I do remember that the bathroom was cold until heated with an electric space heater. I’m pretty sure there was no hot water. Very romantic.

It was a beautiful, quiet week in the fragile January light before Epiphany. We walked through pine woods past giant stacks of timber, and drove back down the hairpin turns to Krems to get dinner, once at a Chinese restaurant, and once at the ancient inn Alte Post. Back up on the hill we discovered the Donauwarte, a tower overlooking the Danube valley. You could look down across the vineyard-covered slopes to the medieval center of Krems and, right below Egelsee, its neighboring town Stein (home to a penitentiary). The little town of Und (German for “and”) is tucked between them. (“Krems Und Stein are three towns.”) In a slight haze on a promontory across the river stood the massive fortified monastery of Göttweig.

There had been a bit of a thaw and the ground near the outlook was muddy. Our son Coleman got out of his stroller, toddled in his yellow one-piece snowsuit, fell down, and got right up, showing a big brown spot on each knee. I realized it was the first time he had ever walked outdoors.