Monday, May 31, 2010

Sundays in Austria

Mass at the old church on the hill. A large lunch with a brass band. Strolling in the plaza in native dress. Visiting with friends. A typical Sunday for the residents of Hallstatt.

We partook of as many of these customs as we could, minus the dirndls and lederhosen! But I went to church, we heard the band at lunch, and we took a lovely walk through sun and rain and wind to the banks of a roaring stream.

To passersby we said "Gruss Gott," literally "Greet God," which is how most Austrians greet each other — rather than "Guten Tag" or "Good Day." I find this endearingly old-fashioned, and hearing this all Sunday seemed to make the day even more of a celebration. Stores are closed on Sundays in Austria, so you're forced to take a day off from your normal chores. Life moves more slowly in Europe.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Nein, Danke!

How do you know you're addicted to posting on your blog? When you find yourself sitting in an outdoor Internet cafe in the drizzle typing on your familiar laptop. The rain taps on the large umbrella that covers the circular bar, and the owner smokes and greets everyone who passes by. I look out over the lake, and thank my lucky stars that we have come to such a beautiful place.

Hallstatt is the oldest town in Austria, and yesterday we toured an ancient salt mine. Afterward we had a snack on top of the mountain and for about an hour the sun came out, the blessed sun, and I snapped some pictures of the meadow flowers. I kept a picture of this town on my computer screen at work. Every day it greeted me, motivated me. Now I'm actually here. I've walked its backstreets and alleyways (almost all its streets are alleyways), I've looked long and longingly at its lake.

I've also thought about the wonders of travel, of dropping briefly into another way of life. Here they serve bread in little cloth baskets, they carry walking sticks, they fight an expansion of their UNESCO World Heritage designation, one that would make it impossible for the residents to even paint an interior wall without approval from an international organization. Almost every quaint house in this town is plastered with a sign that reads "Nein, Danke!" or some other expression of their dissatisfaction with this proposed change. And as we start to think about leaving Europe in a few days, I want to take this sentiment with me. "Nein, Danke." No, thank you. We'd like to keep our old ways. The little fights the large. Let's hope the little wins!


Friday, May 28, 2010

Early Walk

I went for a walk early this morning. Small trucks rumbled along the cobblestones, early tourists snapped photos, purposeful citizens strode to their offices. A clock chimed the hour: eight bells.

So this is what it would be like to live amidst beauty. Beauty not just in one direction or a second, but beauty everywhere you turn.

This town has not changed much since the 1500s. The modern world squeezes itself in here as best it can, but some parts just don't fit. Large cars and trucks, traffic jams, neon lights, air conditioning. Instead there is the sound of the Vltava River as it runs across the weir and curves around the town. There are stone streets and alleyways, frescoes on walls and the castle sitting atop it all. I have only one question this morning: Why do we have to leave?


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wonderful Neglect

Last night a Czech tour guide, a native of Czesky Krumlov, took us through the winding alleys of this marvelously preserved medieval village. She showed us the 16th-century murals on the wall, the rose medallions of the Rosenberg family that lived in the castle for centuries and a school that has been in continuous use since the 1400s. Czesky Krumlov has seen profound ethnic changes in the last century. First, the town lost many of its Czech inhabitants when it came under German control in 1938, and then, after 1945, all its German inhabitants. During the socialist years, the town was inhabited by people who had few ties to the region; large apartment complexes were built on the outer fringes. The inner core was preserved--not out of love for the place but out of disregard. "It was neglect," our tour guide said. "Wonderful neglect." And now, because of this wonderful neglect, we can walk through a town untouched by time.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Running Late

This is a picture of Prague's famous astronomical clock. It's ancient and beautiful and one the city's greatest attractions.

Every hour a crowd gathers in front of it to watch the saints and skeleton strike the hours. Several times I've come running up just in time to watch the last figure disappear into his little door. One time we waited for fifteen minutes only to learn that the clock show doesn't happen at 10 p.m. So I've still never seen the clock do its thing.

But every time I've missed, I've looked up high, at the buildings around us, the crowds, the masterpiece that is the old town square. Running late. On tourist time.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ahhh Prahhhgue

Today we go to Wenceslas Square and to the Jewish Quarter and, if we're lucky a few unexpected places, some back alleys and hidden squares. The minute I saw this city I knew I would have to come back. It's full of tourists, but some places you must brave the hordes to see. Last night, as we walked across the Charles Bridge in a light rain, we suddenly realized we were almost the only ones on the span. This doesn't happen often here, so we snapped a few shots of the castle and I imagined for a moment what it must have been like here before the West arrived.


Monday, May 24, 2010

The Beauty of Detours

We arrived in Prague yesterday, a shiny May Sunday that just happened to be Beer Fest and the Czech/Russia ice-hockey final. The city was alive with every sort of pedestrian one can imagine. And we -- we were in a rental car. We had gotten lost in the Bohemian countryside on the way up, and now we were at risk of driving through a pedestrian zone. But after much clever driving by Tom and jockeying with trams (which share lanes with cars here), we were able to find a temporary parking space, our hostel and, eventually, a parking spot in a garage which I sincerely hope we will find again.

And then we learned about the big game, which was beamed into the huge town square, which is in shouting distance from where we were trying to sleep. But never mind. This is traveling, in which the unexpected is supposed to happen. Like our road from Vienna to Prague, which inexplicably ended about 20 miles past the Czech border. Had we not gotten lost, we wouldn't have seen this castle on a hill, which appeared out of nowhere. Not as grand as the Prague Castle we saw today, but because it rose from the landscape like a vision, all the sweeter.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Walker in die Vororte

Yesterday we took the U-bahn and tram to Kahlenberg. There we saw a church, a restaurant and an overlook. To the left was a path, a wanderweg. We took it down the hill past old vineyards and new grapes to Beethovengasse. At one point we stopped to look at a map. An old man offered to help us. "This is street Beethoven walked on every day," he said. I listened to the birds and the brook. Did sounds like these inspire the Sixth Symphony, the "Pastorale," the first movement of which is called "pleasant feelings upon arrival in the country"? While we were still technically in the city of Vienna, it felt like the country, or at the very least the suburbs. Not the suburbs of big box stores and traffic jams. Instead, a passage to the countryside. By that measure, I was once again a walker in the suburbs. A Walker in die Vororte.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Wiener Riesenrad

We walked all over the First District yesterday, slipped into half a dozen churches, one of which was built in 740. And we ended the day at the Prater, the amusement park that lies between the Danube Canal and the River Danube. The centerpiece of the Prater is the giant ferris wheel known as the Wiener Riesenrad. I knew it as a frightening scene from the film "The Third Man" with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.

I rented "The Third Man" for Suzanne to watch before she came to Vienna. I'd heard it was set in Vienna and had never seen it before. The movie is set in post-war Vienna, a dark, dangerous place with enemies lurking in every corner. Vienna is in ruins. I thought, Suzanne will never want to visit Vienna after seeing this film. Now she wants to see the movie again.

I'm happy to report that we rode the Riesenrad and lived to tell the tale. This is not to say I didn't hang on for dear life. But it was pretty tame, as ferris wheels go, and as we inched our way to the highest point, all Vienna was spread at our feet.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Life on Three-Quarter Time

Last night Suzanne surprised us with tickets to hear the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden in the large golden concert hall of the Musikverein. They were standing room tickets, some of the best in the house, I'm convinced. Where the true music lovers lurk.

We'd been walking around all day but it didn't matter. I felt like I was floating with the music. Because I didn't book the tickets I wasn't sure of the program. But with the first three notes I knew it was the waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier. To hear such music in such a place gave me chills. It brought everything about Vienna together.

It is life on three-quarter time, the life force meter, a swirling, dizzying cadence. It is how I want to be now. A little unsure of myself, spinning and twirling and not letting go. It is not the surety of common time, 4/4. Or the breathlessness of 2/4, split time. It is the emphasis on the first beat, ONE, two, three, TWO, two, three. On what is important, knowing the rest will follow. And the waltzes of Der Rosenkavalier are the waltz in its grandest, most imposing form. A perfect metaphor for Vienna.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Brahms, Strauss and Singing Toilets

Sometimes at home I have to think a minute--or a few minutes--about my daily posts. What thoughts have come to me during a walk in the suburbs? What snatch of ordinary life do I want to write about today?

But now ordinary life is standing on end. Into our ears pours the mellifluous sounds of spoken Austrian (which Suzanne tells us is distinctly different from German). Into our eyes comes a constant stream of images. Every sense is alerted. This is a different country, a different way of living in this world.

So what do I pick today? On our first night, crossing into the First District through the underground shopping area of Karlsplatz, we passed a singing toilet. The melodies of Strauss poured from the open door. It was corny, schmaltzy, complete kitsch. But this is Vienna, the city of Beethoven and Strauss and Brahms. So all is forgiven.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Vienna Waits for You

We met Suzanne yesterday; it had been more than five months since we'd seen her. While I was walking in the suburbs, she's been walking in one of the great European capitals. So she took us on the first of many tours, to the Opera, Stephansdom, and Cafe Central, known for its sacher torte and Old World ambiance. We are going out again soon to the Naschmarkt and the Belvedere Castle and St. Mark's and all sorts of other places. We have placed our hands in the capable hands of our established Vienna tour guide. Vienna has waited for us. And we have waited for Vienna.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Skeletons in the Vasa

Today we went to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. It houses an almost completely intact 17th century warship, the Vasa, that sunk about 10 minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628 but wasn't dredged up from Stockholm harbor until the late 1950s. The ship is a beautifully carved work of art, a messenger from the past. It's grand and glorious. But listen to the movie, take the tour, and you learn that scores of men were crammed into its gun decks. Go down to the lowest level of the museum and you'll meet some of the 40 men and women who perished when the ship sank, look at their skeletons and read about their lives. From their bones, scientists can learn about the diets of these people, the injuries they endured, the fractures that hadn't healed, the illnesses they suffered. Almost all of them were malnourished; tooth decay and gum loss were common. Sailing out on this grand ship may have been the highlight of their difficult lives, and then, in an instant, it was all over. It's easy to romanticize the past, especially when I'm traveling in Europe. The skeletons in the Vasa made me glad I live in the modern world.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Castle Weather

If yesterday was spring in Stockholm, today was winter. It was cool and misty in the morning; I even borrowed gloves. But we defied the weather; we hiked through a fairy-like forest, then had a picnic lunch.

It was the perfect day to visit a cold and drafty castle. And Gripsholm fit the part; it glowered at us as we strolled toward it, crossed over the moat and walked through the thick and forbidding walls into the courtyard.

Kings were imprisoned in this castle, and one abdicated his throne from it. Inside were portraits of royalty, and room after stunning room, some with painted wooden walls, others with damask coverings and one with warm wood paneling. The castle was an intricate maze of passageways and stairways and, on the top floor, a theater.

When we left the place to stroll through the village of MarieFred, my head was spinning, and no wonder: I had left the 16th Century and was suddenly re-entering the 21st. I wasn't sure I was ready for the trip.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Second Spring

Traveling to Sweden is like traveling back in time, back to a second spring--the trees just leafing out, the daffodils blooming, tulips, too. Today was one of the first and finest sunny days of spring. Everyone was out, mothers and babies and teenagers and old folks and marching bands and tourists, of course, like us. We learned from Dan today that we are only 11 hours drive from the Arctic Circle! No wonder the air has a chill when the sun goes down (when it finally does). But the warm days are all the sweeter here because they are so rare, and Stockholm was humming with life, the gardens and the palace and the narrow alleys of Gamla Stan (Old Town). Traveling is like a second spring, too. Suddenly the eyes are opened to what is always there.

Friday, May 14, 2010

At Home in Sweden

It took two planes and more than fourteen hours before we landed in Stockholm, but since then everything has been so easy I almost can't believe we're in a foreign country. Tom's cousin, Dan, and his wife, Ann-Katrin, have taken us into their lovely lakeside home outside of Stockholm and we have talked and hiked and taken a ferry to a castle where the king and queen live. It all seems like a mirage--the soft green of the newly leaved birch trees, the melodic sounds of spoken Swedish, the warmth and hospitality of Dan and Ann-Katrin. But it is real--my fuzzy, jet-lagged brain tells me so. And because of my fuzzy, jet-jagged brain, this post will be brief. Just long enough to say, we already feel at home in Sweden.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ascension Thursday

Not to be sacrilegious, but I realized a few days ago that we would be leaving for Europe, taking our long flight across the Atlantic, on Ascension Thursday. I believe this holiday has been demoted in the Catholic Church from a holy day of obligation to a regular holy day, but years of Catholic schooling have left their imprint. Ascension Thursday it is. The day Christ ascended into heaven, 40 days after Easter, a perfect counterweight to the 40 days of Lent.

Today we rise, too. Not on clouds, and not to the music of angelic choirs. We rise by racing through the airport, taking off our shoes, our jackets, our belts; by handing our passports and boarding passes to various grim-faced officials. It is not easy to fly these days. But there are few feelings like it. It is freedom, of course. That's the thrill of it. An escape from earth, an escape from time, an escape, even, from the weather. And so, off we go...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

This Above All

As we were growing up, my mother quoted Shakespeare to us, one line in particular: "This above all, to thine own self be true." My mother didn't raise my father, of course, but this line could have been written for him. A man so aptly named Frank, my dad has always been true to himself. He is friendly and fun and as good as they come; he extracts joy from daily living.

When he was a tail gunner on bombing raids in World War II, he took a milk concoction into the nether regions of a B-17 bomber so that he and his buddies would have ice cream when they landed back in East Anglia. Sixty-odd years later, when he was being honored as a D-Day veteran by his hometown, he told the Lexington City Council that its downtown reminded him of London during the blitz--his way of protesting the demolition of yet another city block. He even made us laugh when he was facing serious surgery: Instead of taking the revolving door into the hospital, he took it all the way around so he was back outside.

But of course, it was all in fun. He went back in; he did what he had to do. But he did it with a smile and a quip. People like my father make life worth living. Happy Birthday, Dad!


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Checklist

I'm reading (actually, racing to finish, because it's a library book) The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. I discovered Gawande's writing through one of those Best Essays volumes and have continued to read and enjoy his books.

This one is about how checklists save lives. He tells one riveting story about an operation gone wrong (his own error) and how a checklist ensured there was a large supply of blood on hand to transfuse the patient. One of the items on the checklist was for the surgical team to introduce themselves before the operation began. As a result, Gawande says,"We came into the room as strangers. But when the knife hit the skin, we were a team." It was teamwork and cool, methodical action that saved the patient's life.

Two days before our departure, I'm making my own checklists. Passport. Check. International Driver's Permit. Check. I've always been a list-maker--and I've often faulted myself for it, thinking it the sign of a limited imagination. But reading this book has made me feel better about my habit. If lists save lives, think of what they can do for vacations.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Cool Shade

It's chilly outside this morning, but one thing about the day makes me think about the sticky summer weather to come. It is shade, the deep green depths of it, the way it cools and soothes. I grew up in a shadeless subdivision, playing in meadows and along creek banks for hours each day under a full and merciless sun. The two trees in our front yard were saplings I was dying to climb. By the time they were large enough, we'd outgrown the house and moved away. Maybe it's this early shade deprivation that explains my attraction for cool, dappled glades; for fern and hollow; for the quiet, naturally air-conditioned woods. Each spring we extol the return of flower and leaf. Shouldn't we also celebrate the return of shade?

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Mom, Running

Death, when it doesn’t devastate, makes us more keenly aware of life — that we are still here, walking on this earth; that our gift to the departed is to keep on living. So today I went for a walk and found myself filled with gratitude. For my own mom on this Mother’s Day, for the closeness we’ve always had, for her intelligence and care and optimism, for her quoting Shakespeare to us when we were little kids, for her sheer being. For my own three daughters, who I love beyond measure and who gladden my heart daily in ways small and large. For my husband, who even in his own sadness went out and bought me flowers and sweets and a large bottle of Dubonnet to celebrate the day. For my father, sister and brothers, and for all of Tom’s family, who I’m thinking about so much today.

I saw several solo moms out walking this morning, and we smiled and greeted each other. I wondered when I saw them if they were doing what I was, escaping for a solitary stroll not to avoid chaos at home but to savor the richness of their lives. For it is only when we step aside for a moment, only when time or circumstance pulls us out of the fray, that we realize what we have. And as I contemplated the bounty of my life, I felt lifted off my feet with joy. And I realized that without knowing it I had broken into a trot. I had become, for a few moments, a runner in the suburbs.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mary Ann Gardner 1928 - 2010

Blogs come in many shapes and sizes. Some are intensely personal; others are not. I haven’t decided exactly how personal I want mine to be. But I can’t not write about what has been happening this week, how as we’ve been counting down the days to our trip, Tom’s Aunt Mary Ann, who raised him and his sisters since they were young children, was in ever more frail and failing health. Yesterday, as Tom went through the airport security line on his way to see her, his brother and sister called. Aunt Mary Ann had passed away peacefully. Tom turned around and came home.

His family is scattered: Portland, Spokane, Missoula, Chicago, New York, D.C. The service will be in Indianapolis in early June. So we are in limbo: grieving and packing. Still going away (she would have wanted us to, Tom says), but with heavy hearts.

So this post is for Aunt Mary Ann (pictured above with some of her grandchildren last summer), a woman who didn’t know how to quit, who even in her late 70s strode three paces ahead of her walking companions. Who came into our house like a whirlwind every time she visited and immediately began scrubbing and baking and sewing. She was a brave and determined person who lost her husband, Uncle Bud, much too early but who carved out a life for herself after he died as docent and grandmother and frequent flier. She raised seven good people in a house as full of fun and chaos as any I’ve ever experienced. Though she spent the last year and a half in Montana, she was a Hoosier through and through. She will make that final trip home soon.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Morning's at Seven

An early morning walk: crows, robins, jays, a red-winged black bird. At one point a plump bunny hopped through the dewy meadow grass. The air was thin and clean. It made me think of a Robert Browning poem I used to read the girls:

The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;

The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his heaven --
All's right with the world!

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Thursday, May 6, 2010


We leave a week from today. Time for some inspiration. So into this world of deadlines and errands, broken computers and broken glasses, appointments and schedules and list after list after list, there comes a breathing space, a long sigh. This is Hallstatt, a village in Austria's Salzkammergut, an area of mountains and lakes east of Salzburg. Is it possible that we will see such a place? Is it possible that such a place even exists?


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Feather

I saw it on the street when I was walking the other day: a single feather. Dark, elegant, alone. From a crow, perhaps. At home we have feathers all over the house from our sweet parakeet, Hermes. But his are electric blue, or sometimes darker pinfeathers or fluffy white downy bits that float in the air like dust motes. We humans molt dead skin and fingernail parings. How much more lovely the gifts birds leave behind.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Writing Places

"I'd say that it is good to have a quiet place to work, and it is also good not to work there, but somewhere else -- whether at one end of the dining room table, or sitting in an armchair by the fireplace or even away from all the usual writing spots entirely."

I just finished reading Reeve Lindbergh's memoir Forward From Here, in which she writes about writing places -- and many other things. Reeve can look out her back door and see her mother's writing house, moved from Connecticut after Anne Morrow Lindbergh's death in 2001. But Reeve doesn't usually write in her mother's writing house.

I know what she means. For years I wrote in an office. We always had a dedicated room in our house where I could work. First it was an upstairs bedroom, and then, when the girls got older and each had their own room, it was a converted dining room downstairs. Now that I have a laptop I wander all over the house and yard. In fact, I do some of my best writing on Metro (provided I have a conductor who knows how to operate the brakes -- not always a given with that outfit).

It helps to have a writing spot (because you're telling yourself that your writing is important enough to make space for it), but if writing is like breathing, then it figures you should be able to do it most anywhere.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Walker's Block

When a writer can't write, she has writer's block. When a walker can't walk, does she have walker's block? Or what if the walker only has time for a quick walk, a walk around the block, but she doesn't have a block to walk around?

Such is the case here in the suburbs. Because most people don't want to live on cut-through streets, we have plenty of cul-de-sacs but precious few connectors. Instead of walking around the block, with the pleasant circularity that entails, we walk up one side of the road and down another.

To get around this linearity, I've come up with loop walks. I cross West Ox, a busy, four-lane road at the west end of our neighborhood, down a slight hill, left into Franklin Farm, through a meadow, along a paved path in a small woods and eventually back to West Ox and into Folkstone again. It isn't a block, but it is a walk. A walker's block.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Devil May Care

It's the first Saturday in May, a day to drink mint juleps, sing "My Old Kentucky Home" and watch the horses run. Strong storms are predicted for Churchill Downs, which means that Devil May Care, a filly whose owner my parents met last weekend, will have to run well in the mud to win the 136th Kentucky Derby. I hope she does, because of the faint connection, because she's a girl and because I like her name. (This is the, ahem, highly scientific method by which I usually choose a horse.)

Devil May Care makes me think about going for broke. It's the rakish tilt of a fedora, a whiff of cigarette smoke, the swirl of bourbon in a highball glass. In a world of highly regulated outcomes, chance draws us like a magnet. Who wants to know how every race will end? Who doesn't long for surprise? When the track is muddy, it's more likely that you'll see a most improbable horse, a long shot, perhaps a filly, streaking along the rail or swinging wide on the outside. The cheers will be deafening, the mud will be flying and a horse, a horse whose name we don't yet know, will be running her heart out, racing for the finish line.

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