9/2/14

A letter and a kid (3)

My father was born in the Northern part of Styria, in Kleindorf. Imagine a typical village in the middle of the Alps: a municipality consisting of several hamlets and a main village with a small central square where the Town Hall stands. It has three schools. The plain, white church dates back to the 9th century, the building itself being a mash-up of Romanic, Gothic, Baroque and Neo-Gothic styles.
There’s a supermarket. Next to it, a cemetery. This odd vicinity has nothing to do with cause and effect, of course.
Along the two main roads stand low buildings, no higher than three storeys, some of which house doctor’s offices, cafés, restaurants, and different trades: bakeries, grocery stores, hairdressers, watchmakers, pharmacies. There’s a Chinese restaurant.
In one word, it looks like the average Austrian village.
Situated at the edge of a large basin, Kleindorf huddles against a gentle, woody rise. When you take the road next to the church, you discover a brook that runs down the slope, cutting a winding rift into the forest. The rivulet murmurs and gurgles peacefully in summer and autumn, its banks overgrown with fern and flowers, grass and clover, stinging nettles and alpine plants. Here and there, the trees' overhanging branches hide it from view.
In winter, a tiny trickle is barely audible, the brook syrupy under its thick crust of ice. In springtime, when its demons awake with the melting of the snow, it gets all puffed up, rushing and gushing and roaring down the rift as if to show how important it is.
Following the rivulet upstream, you pass near the stony, moss-covered remnants of an ancient castle, long ago the stronghold of proud and cruel knights who used to rob the merchants of the county on their way to the nearest market fair. The prince-archbishop of Salzburg, owner of the castle, finally got so fed up by the constant complaints that he razed the castle. Time and weather did the rest, until only shatters and ruins remained.
If you walk on, let’s say for half an hour, up and up and up, you leave the shadows of the forest behind and reach a rustic alpine farm made of thick stones and dark, old wood, surrounded by steep meadows and ancient, whispering trees. The flowers give off a wild, dry perfume; bees, flies, and bumblebees hum around.
The fertile basin stretches at your feet now, imposing mountain ranges surrounding it like rocky sentinels. The houses and streets of the village down below look tiny as if toys. The giant slate pile of an ancient coalmine rises in the middle of cornfields. Not too far away, there’s a moated Renaissance castle.
Now, my family… Well, my dad’s father, Ferdinand “Ferdi” Dohr, a good-humoured and tolerant fellow, was working in the local coalmine. My grandma Berta was living three kilometres from Kleindorf on a farm where she had been hired as a milkmaid when she was fourteen.
I don’t know much about how she met grandpa Ferdinand. Her employer must have brought her “to town” on Sundays to go to Mass, I guess. Which would have favoured an accidental first encounter.
But not with Ferdi, Lord Jesus no! Not only was he working class, but a Communist into the bargain. One of those dreamers who believed in a better tomorrow, in the inevitable downfall of capitalism, and the rise of a new race of humans. In his world, religion was but the opiate of the masses.
I call him a dreamer because he never was dogmatic. An idealist, not an ideologist. Things always start to go downhill when a vague dream, however beautiful, becomes an ideology. When hope becomes blind faith.
Now, apart from the church, where could he have met grandma Berta? Maybe he stumbled upon her on the farm where she was working? It’s true that my Ferdi was popular with the local farmers. Which comes as a surprise—most of them were conservative, fervent Catholics, whose only fear, besides Hell, was what they called the Red Danger, the henchmen of Moscow.
But grandpa was an easy-going lad. With a healthy thirst. And it wasn’t water he preferred, if you catch my drift. Now, what bridges ideological gaps better than some pints and a few glasses of schnapps?
Moreover, Ferdi was always ready to help. “Certainly, certainly…”, he'd say when someone asked for a service. He visited his brother once a week, bringing a small leather satchel with scissors and a mechanical beard trimmer. They’d take turns cutting each other’s hair. Grandpa was good at that. In a small village, word-in-mouth spreads fast, so he’d tour the farms and cut the peasants’ hair in his spare-time, too.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful insight to your family village and life, thanks for sharing.

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