Tag Archives: Salzburg

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.

Mozart.birth.500pix

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)

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A Letter from Salzburg (November 1998)

Salzburg-3-V

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 . . .”

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.