[This is another excerpt from "In the Bubble" - my journal about our sabbatical in the fall of 2005. After leaving Tuscany, Casey, Dave and I spent eight days in Germany and Austria. The following tells of our stay in Hallstatt, Austria, having visited Dachau concentration camp the day before.]
Oct. 9, 2005
Snow-capped mountains ring crystal-pure lakes parting Dachau’s breath-stopping shroud as we chug toward Hallstatt by train. We have befriended a little blond sprite of a boy named Nicholas. He and his grandfather live in Hallstatt and they will tell us when we reach our stop then direct us to our hotel. It feels good to have someone take care of us, even in this small way.
Nicholas’ tiny fingers appear through the crack between the seat backs, miming Dave’s gestures as they play chomping alligators.
* * *
The food tastes fine, but the gun is distracting.
Having seen it in action this morning, Dave and I are stunned to discover it here, at Pizzeria Muhle, resting on a sideboard when we walked into the restaurant for dinner.
We’d awakened early in somber moods unrelated to the weather or the beauty of the setting. Sunshine caressed petunias of magenta, pink and white that spilled from the flower box beneath our window at Gasthof Simony. The light, nourishing as the water flowing from the fountain in the street below, bathed the town square. The soul-sickness of Dachau was not easily purged, but we were soothed by the snow-capped mountains and silvered lake.
After eating a substantial breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cheese, fruit, cereal and bread, Casey, Dave and I explored the village, coming to rest on a tiny stone walkway threaded between Hobbit-like doorways and balconies lush with flowers. The houses around us clung impossibly to the hillside, each stepped one upon the other.
“I wonder if he feels abandoned,” Dave worried.
He was talking about his father, Colombo.
Casey and I were silent. What could we say? No one had known what Colombo was thinking for over a year, since his stroke.
“We’ll make up for our absence when we return,” I offered. I’d made many deals with God before we left, promising solicitousness-forever in visiting Colombo, Ma Sly and Aunty Cam if we could have our two months sabbatical uninterrupted by any aging-Sylvestro crises. I added, “But, I bet he’s not aware of time passing.”
“I hope not.”
Fingers of late morning sun reached us as the faithful of Hallstatt, clad in dirndls and lederhosen, inched past us, hiking the steep stairs to church. They smiled kindly, perhaps discerning the glint of tears on Casey’s cheek, the sadness of this trio of strangers.
Suddenly, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Three heart-stopping shots echoed about the mountains.
The braying of flugelhorn, trumpet and French horn yanked us to our feet and we raced down the path to locate the source of the shots and bellowing brass.
A curl of white smoke hung over the town square as a parade of men in Tyrolean dress trailed a band led by a standard-bearer waving a white flag. A clown with a red face figured prominently in the line-up. A clown. Intriguing... disturbing.
Music alternately mournful and rousing resonated over blue waters as we joined the procession winding through narrow village streets to the boat ramp on the lake. The marchers filed onto a relic of the salt industry, a flat-bottomed “Fuhr” boat, designed to carry heavy loads in shallow water. Each passenger wore pink and blue flowers interlaced with ferns tucked into their hatbands. A little guy of four or so was precious as a doll dressed in his lederhosen and green loden jacket.
As the boat was launched, three men in the stern tamped gunpowder into massive wooden guns. All assembled waited with fingers in ears. The men lifted arms and fired. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The mountains towered beyond, as the boat glided over crystal waters. We kept pace with those left onshore, running along the road bordering the lake. A woman in a powder-blue dirndl over a white blouse with puffed sleeves explained that the ceremony was an old tradition associated with a hunting and shooting club.
“But what is the purpose? What’s with the clown?”
She shrugged, miming a hand clutching a beer stein. In broken English, she said, “mainly, it’s Proust! Proust! Proust!”
In unison with the standard-bearer, a white flag waved from a balcony on the hill as the boat reached the far side of the lake, the music dwindling to a sorrowful moan.
And now, hours later, Dave and I are astonished to find one of the intricately carved wooden guns, a hand-held cannon really, casually resting on its side at Pizzeria Muhle. It is like spotting Excalibur, a celebrity among weapons.
The gun’s owner droops across the bar, cross-eyed and disheveled, after his not-yet-finished day of revelry. Still, in his short lederhosen and Tyrolean hat, he is as quaint as a drunk can be.
The restaurant’s proprietor, Toro (pronounced “Tewrew”) is chatty and hospitable and pulls up a chair to join us. Despite his geniality, he leers in a way that would make me uncomfortable if not for Dave’s presence. He insists on buying us a round of drinks and after we’ve finished eating, waves us to the bar to meet the cross-eyed owner of the gun, his brother Steve, and some friends.
Round after round of assorted liqueurs, rum and coke, beer and wine are plunked on the bar in front of me. I’m feeling pretty cheerful already, so I stop drinking despite the continuing appearance of filled glasses at my elbow.
Casey had taken a pass on dinner and is reading back in the room, but given the colorful assemblage, and the gun of course, I decide to fetch her.
I scamper down the vine-bedecked stairway cut into the hill, past flower-draped balconies, over a wooden footbridge below a waterfall, and through an arched alley opening into night-quiet fairytale streets. I am intoxicated… by the setting and, yes, from the liberal offerings of Toro and the boys. I smile to myself as I stand by the fountain in the village square and call up to the lighted window above the words “Gasthof Simony.”
Casey’s face appears haloed by the light, framed by petunias. “Hi Sweetie!” I giggle.
“Mom! Are you drunk?” Her voice is a whispered hiss. She is accusing, but amused as well.
“You have to come back with me! To the restaurant! One of the wooden guns is there and they’re giving us free drinks and the bartender is pretty cute and it’s a beautiful night for a walk!”
“Guns? What restaurant? How cute? Wait a minute. I’ll be right down.”
Within moments, she is out the door, laughing as she gives me a hug. “Look at you! You’ve been having fun, I guess!”
I hug her back and say, “Just look at this! Look around us.”
We are quiet, smiling, as we turn a full circle. The night is soft on peaked dormers and velvety petals. The water splashes in the fountain beside us. “Magic,” says Casey.
It is magic.
Together, we retrace my steps, two heroines in an enchanted village.
At Pizzeria Muhle, the scene is unreal, but not exactly magical. Casey is greeted with jocular toasts and of course, a free drink. How does this man make any money, I have to wonder. Casey poses with the gun, affecting a gangster stance, or at least, as gangster-like as possible given the heft of the weapon.
In the course of conversation, I discover I’ve spent the evening addressing our host by his last name; I had noticed his certificate of restaurant management on the wall, not realizing that, in Austria, names are reversed on official documents. Oh dear. I must’ve been written off as another rude American.
It is 2:00 AM, way past time to depart. I give Ferdy, no longer “Toro,” a friendly hug. He turns me around firmly and picks up a fly swatter, saying, “And now you know what we must do!”
I think, “Hmmm, no. No, I don’t. Iffy, but Dave and Casey are here. How bad can this be?”
Not bad, but bizarre. He spanks me with the fly swatter!
I probably shouldn’t have called him by his last name all night.
Cannons, clowns and fly swatters. This is quite a little town.
We stumble down the steep path toward the square and decide on a head-clearing walk along the lake. Casey is bug-eyed at the spanking and we struggle to stifle our snickers. We recognize another celebrant from this morning’s ceremony who introduces himself as “Shorty.” He offers, hand to zipper, to prove he isn’t short where it counts. My daughter is near choking as we assure him we need no demonstration.
Shorty urges us to join him for a nightcap at Pizzeria Muhle. Casey snorts with laughter as we thank him, but decline.
We part ways, sending our best wishes to the gang at the Pizzeria. A short while later, Shorty’s voice comes to us through the dark, “Lea! Dave! Casey!” Nothing more, but it was fun to be hailed in familiar fashion in the middle of the night in Hallstatt.
* * *
After the excitement of last night's festivities, we spend a quiet morning in our room at Gasthof Simony writing postcards and reading. Dave opens his new book and settles back in the cloud-like nest of our feather-bed. A short while later, he exclaims, “You’re not going to believe this.”
Before leaving the U.S., Dave stocked up on reading material at Borders. He’d asked the salesgirl for a recommendation with the caveat, “I’m an NPR kind of geek.”
“I have just the thing,” the girl had said and handed him "Salt" by Mark Kurlansky.
He’d never heard of it. He didn’t read the back cover summary. He brought the book home and packed it.
As he read the first twelve pages, here at Gasthof Simony, he learned that we are visiting the salt capital of the world. The opening chapter of the book was about Hallstatt.
What are the odds?
Sometimes it seems that great cogs are turning, and once in a while, they lock neatly into place.
Within an hour of Dave’s opening the book, we find directions to the salt mines, eat a quick snack of bread and cheese, walk maybe ten minutes along the lake, and take a cable car up the mountain to the shaft’s entrance. Is it travel or the ability and time to be open, by which adventures unfold?
We gather with about eighteen other visitors in a large locker room. A bored employee distributes formless uniforms of heavy blue gabardine. Casey and I preen and perform a run-way strut in our becoming outfits.
Moments later, as I zip into the earth’s bowels on Europe’s longest wooden slide, I am glad of the fabric shield against friction. I dismount with a flourish and check the digital read-out flashing my speed. Apparently I beat Dave in this race to the center of the earth. I pump the air with my fist along with all the other triumphant sliders who’ve surpassed friends and family members in this pointless victory.
It is cool and dark as we follow the guide past underground lakes and pink protrusions of raw salt. Some outcroppings are lighted and glow like lanterns. Mannequins clad in skins enact Iron Age salt extraction. Casey, wishing always to enliven our photographs, poses with her tongue pressed to the salt wall, ignoring my protests.
On the way out of the mine, we stop at the gift shop and Dave selects several small chunks of pink salt. He plans to give Tucker and Dad a copy of the book "Salt" as well as these samples from Hallstatt as Christmas presents. He also claims one of the chunks as his own and christens it, cleverly, “Salty.”
[To see photos of our trip to Hallstatt, click here.]