Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Salzburg, 16.7.03: Duck Strength and High Summer Drought

Entekraft: that’s the word that popped into my mind as I awoke this morning. Why on earth? I do seem to recall that I thought I heard a duck flying overhead, but why Duck Strength? The games the mind plays when unfettered. If I could only harness some of that capriciousness and creativity for “everyday.”

Tielsch, Ancestral Pyramid, speaking of Austria after World War I: “This much-too-little country, cut off from the economic resources of the monarchy, cut off from Hungarian grain, from Czech coal, from Croatian hay-farming, from the Adriatic harbors, how should it continue to exist, this dwarf of a nation with the hydrocephalic head of the erstwhile capital, the imperial city of Vienna? One had been used to thinking in giant dimensions, the change-over to smaller proportions came too suddenly and was difficult” (135).

Precisely. “The hydrocephalic head of the erstwhile capital, the imperial city of Vienna”: that captures what I felt in Vienna, without being able to articulate. It’s a city where so much now seems purely ornamental, and an outré, over-the-top ornamentality with no real function in the world that came into being in the 20th century. The monuments are so grand, the earnest K and K slogans, so blowsy and self-serving.

And what seemed maddening to me, the Viennese don’t seem to recognize that they inhabit an ornamental city. That they live, many of them, by the tourist trade, and yet don’t have the grace and dignity to admit that and be kind to strangers.

Praguers, at least, are frank about that. They relish being ornamental, making the stranger welcome. Granted, our experiences were colored by being at a wonderful b and b in Prague and a lousy hotel in Vienna. But it was the people who made the difference. We met too many snarling Viennese. What did Jochem call it, the Viennese Schmarren or Schnarren?

Tielsch goes on to describe the incredible poverty Vienna experienced after World War I (and I recall Ilse F. telling us similar stories about the post-World War II period). But Praguers, too, have known suffering and privation, and more recently. She says, “It was a TIME OF GREAT POVERTY, says my father, and especially hard for the inhabitants of the city of one million, the former imperial capital that no longer had a function, that was too big for the country grown so small” (136).

(By the pond): Animals never cease to fascinate, with their distinct personalities, languages we only faintly divine, reasons for behaving as they do. With their Duck Strength.

As we walked over, a woman walking a beautiful large red-brown dog through the hayfield. I don’t know the breed, but it looked much like a German shepherd. Very alert expression, shrewd, intelligent eyes.

It was walking her. That was clear, that it thought this. It went in a perfectly straight line ahead of her and to her right in the hayfield as she walked the path.

Then it saw what seemed to be a brown water or food dish in the hay. Had, of course, to investigate, so it diverged from its straight line. That meant it also got a wisp of dry hay on its nose, so that, when it stopped in a moment to mark (my food dish), it had one ludicrous whisker of gray-green hay hanging down its nose.

It looked me full in the face—he did—and dared me to laugh. This was a dog full of dignity and used to commanding respect.

I don’t think I’ve written about the little tabby cat I’ve twice encountered on the hayfield paths. Twice in the same day, going and coming. As we walked over, it padded out of the yet-to-be-mown hay (mouse heaven) and allowed me, with gravity and composure, to pet it.

Later, as we walked home, same thing all over again. I wondered if the cat spoke German. If so, it was very cool and gracious about allowing me to speak English and rub its head between the ears.

What if people greeted each other that way? I think I’d rather like it.

Duck strength. I’d better apply some of it to the paper now. I’m becoming part duck, sitting here by the pond and observing. I’m learning to think and speak a new language. And as Rilke says, for every new language we learn, we develop a new soul—not a bad thing for a writer to have several of.

Reminds me of a ficus we saw this morning in the guest house. At some point, someone very carefully plaited its trunks (or is it more than one tree?) into an intricate design like Italian majolica baskets. I’ve seen plaited ficus before, but never one like this, where multiple trunks enclose an open space. It’s a dance, too, in its own way, every bit as much as the dance of the birds.

Tielsch (p. 158) says that the avenues of cherry trees we saw (and of other trees) in Moravia were planted to enable people to see where the roads ran in snowy weather. Baden also has these rows of fruit trees. Does that mean it’s equally snowy in winter in Baden?

The little cat about which I wrote earlier today: there it was again as we walked to the hotel to pick up our picnic lunch (das Picnic, the hotel lady corrected us). It was coming out of a house we’ve admired along the path from the hotel to the Schloss. It’s in the country lane leading to the hayfield, alongside which a stream flows.

The house is big and square, 3-storied, set back into the hillside and painted yellow, as are many in this area, with white trim. It has shutters, also common here, and a balcony.

Most of all, I like the garden. Along the laneway as a screen beyond the old iron fence and past a swath of grass is a row of shrubs, althea, hydrangea, lilac, others I can’t name. There’s also an apple tree. These all have some non-fussy ground cover at their feet.

Gardens in general are never fussy here. It’s not the English cottage-garden tradition. They’re pleasant enough, a mix of shrubs, flowers, and grass, but never tended to as though they’re priorities. I’ve seen only one garden with any plants not replicated in others. It was the one with the mauve astilbes, and had hostas as well.

Steve has laughed all day that I believed Frau Hilbert’s (as it turns out our hotel lady is called) statement that it would rain this evening. But as I look south and west, I see lots of haze on the horizon, not the beautiful light of previous evenings.

And as I write this, I hear on CNN that fierce storms are battering Bordeaux and the heat wave across Europe (Frankfurt is 34, Vienna 32) is causing economic problems in London, terrible drought in northern Italy, and the closing down of the Matterhorn due to melting of permafrost. Things here are very dry and in need of rain. I’m dripping sweat as I sit by the window and write. It was so hot, Steve and I walked only little and then slowly in the afternoon, collapsing at a café where he had beer and I lemon ice.

A hawk high overhead, first I’ve seen. It’s twice hovered over the hayfield (where the farmer did rake and gather his hay), suddenly stopping and flittering its wings frantically. It is spotting a mouse, I wonder? We did see one tiny mouse lying on the path that leads up along the mountain into town. It looked so sad there, and I felt so bad not to help it into the woods. I suspected it was hurt, and would surely be overrun by one of those aggressive Austrian bikers. But you never know what microbe you’ll encounter when you touch a mouse.

Yes, the whole southern and western half of the sky now shrouded in cloud. I think I even smell rain. I hope Steve takes on e of the many umbrellas that are beside all the doors at the Schloss and his residence building.

Interesting: Ilse Tielsch’s mother was named Valerie and called Valli for short. My grandmother never admitted to being more than plain Vallie. Aunt Helen says her real name was Valora. I suspect it was Valerie, and she was called Vallie as a nickname.

The translator of the Tielsch book uses the phrase shilly-shallying, which I haven’t heard in a long time. Sounds like something my mother and her sisters might have said. Where does it come from, I wonder?

I wrote earlier that the rain was coming from the south and west. I’m mistaken. It’s from the southeast. I had the mountains by which I reckon south confused. The ones to the far southeast are now shrouded in dark clouds and wind picking up. I do hope Steve makes it back here before the storm breaks. He looked so tired and pained by his hip when he left. Lightning now. I’m worried.

Now thunder. May angels accompany Steve as he walks back, make his footing secure, guide and protect him, with his shot hip that gives such pain and trouble. Now comes the rain.

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