9/28/14

The Fairy Tale Years (3)

Their eyes opened wide when they perceived the richness of the place, the wooden floor, the glittering cones, the blindingly white shirts, the squires’ proud, albeit beer-flushed faces. The old woman held the little boy close to her, lest he stumbled and broke something. Then, she took a cautious step forward and asked the nearest man, “Beg pardon, sire, what is this place?”
Unfortunately, she had talked to the squire whose turn it was to bowl. Distracted, he missed the cones on the far side, and his bowling ball hit the tunnel wall instead before disappearing in the darkest recess of the gallery.
The man swivelled around and yelled, “Darn old beggar woman!” His angry, drunken voice wobbled. “Now I’ve lost my ball! How am I going to play, huh?”
His comrades, as drunk as he, roared with laughter.
The squire got even angrier. Madness showed in his eyes as he glared in every which way.
Then he discovered the boy, half-hidden in the folds of the old woman’s cloak.
In one swift movement, he jerked the boy away from the old woman. Slowly, he picked up an axe.
His malevolent eyes glinted. “Found me some new ball,” he slurred.
And chopped off the boy's head.
The other squires cheered, some clapped their hands, others laughed so hard that they fell backwards. “Now let’s bowl!” the squire hollered. New cheers echoed through the gallery.
The old woman had sunk to her knees. Her old, wrinkled face contorted with disbelief, grief, and anger. With tear-blind eyes, she stared at the squire.
Then, she whispered, “I curse you all, cruel squires.” Her voice rose thunder-like. “Curse you, proud and cupid men! May all your riches and your fortune disappear! May you all perish!”
A loud rumbling followed her words, the earth shook. And several huge rocks came tumbling down in front of the Bowling Gallery, blocking the exit.
The mountain continued to groan and rumble and tremble.
The squires, sobered up by a rising panic, started to retreat further into the old gallery. From working here day by day, they knew their way; they hoped to be able to get away through a side-tunnel. But deep inside the mountain, secret rivers started to swell as if fed by the old woman’s tears, and icy floods came rushing through the tunnels.
There was no escape.
That evening, all the squires drowned, one after the after, and the old woman drowned, and the waters flooded tunnels and galleries, covering all the remaining silver forever.
That’s how the squires had brought about the downfall of their mine and of their blooming village. After the old woman's curse, no one ever dared enter the tunnels again.
It is said that there are riches galore in those tunnels and that it takes a brave man with a pure, loving heart to discover them.
But maybe, that silver is cursed forever, tainted with the young boy's blood, hexed by the squires' inhuman deed.

(to be continued)

9/25/14

The Fairy Tale Years (2)

Here’s a legend I’ve heard many times when I was a kid. A regional story that impressed me a lot and might be the reason I’m not into gold, silver, or riches.
I might also be looking for an easy excuse. Yes, I’m bad with money. Procrastinators always are.
Anyway. When you leave Kleindorf, the coalmine's slate pile to your left, the cornfields to your right, the village in your back, you will stumble upon the river Pöls at one moment. Follow it upstream, pass in front of the moated Rennaissance castle, walk on, walk on, and you'll move away from the plain and enter the Pöls valley. It winds up between the mountains toward a more than 1,200 metres high pass.
But you don’t have to climb up that high. Halfway, there’s a brook to the left that comes babbling down from the mountains. Near the brook lies a little market town.
Today, it’s a sleepy, rural settlement with narrow lanes and old but perfectly preserved baroque houses, with rustic farms, verdant meadows, lush pastures, and rustling forests. The archetype of the romantic, clean Austrian village.
In the olden times, the most important silver mine of the whole Habsburg Empire was situated here. The market town was a rich town back then, its population of peasants, merchants, craftsmen, and squires behaving with the natural arrogant pride that comes with wealth.
Every morning, while the rising sun was still hiding behind the mountain peaks, painting them in red and orange and gold, the squires set out on shady paths, clad in ample, white shirts and dark trousers. They climbed up to the entrance of the mine, a carefree song on their lips, holding a black metal lamp in one hand and their tools in the other.
All day long, they’d crouch in the moist, hot, low tunnels and galleries. Their work was tedious and hard; their faces had turned black with soot and dirt when the day's labour was done.
But their efforts were worth it. They extracted so much silver that the Emperor eventually possessed more silver plates, silver spoons, silver cups, silver knives, silver candlesticks, silver helmets, silver combs, and silver toothpicks than anyone else. The local notability started to weave silver threads in their clothes. Even the squires became rich, their white shirts made of the softest, most precious fabrics, their boots always shiny and black, their houses bigger and more comfortable than any miner's house throughout the rest of the Empire.
Such was their wealth that the squires started to think they deserved the riches that destiny had bestowed on them. They started to think they were superior to everyone else.
In those days, the squires had a favourite pastime. They’d often meet in an old, abandoned gallery, enjoy some pints of beer, and bowl. Of course, in the beginning, they had played with wooden cones and wooden bowling balls.
But now, they were rich. Their cones and bowling balls were made of pure silver.
One winter evening, while the wind was howling outside and snow was falling on the mountains and the valley, a poor old woman and her little grandson passed in front of the entrance to the Bowling Gallery. Both were cold and hungry and tired.
When they saw the cosy light spilling out of the tunnel, they stepped in, hoping they’d find a place where to escape the bitter winter’s eve.

9/22/14

The Fairy Tale Years (1)

Anna Plochl
To recount my childhood years is a strange exercise. Not because I had a strange childhood, not at all. If I wanted to summarise its benchmark data, I guess it would look insipid, trite, even dull: living in the bosom of my family from age zero to four; kindergarten from four to six; primary school from six to ten.
That’s about it.
Seen from that angle, it’s a dry documentary starring me. Mom. Dad. Kathi. Uncles, aunts, cousins. Several friends.
Alright, any story seems uninteresting when you tell it that way. That’s why most résumés make people yawn.
But that’s my point. I can’t find anything strange when I try to remember my life as a kid.
The strangeness I’m talking about lies in the fact that when I look back, nothing feels fixed or solid. It’s a long, shifting, hazy period with no room for a clear chronology. I remember facts as precisely as I remember the secret code of my Visa card. But those events could have happened at one moment. Or another. Later. Or sooner.
My childhood is a borderless, timeless, enchanted realm.
A happy, carefree realm.
No wonder. I’ve been born, and I’ve grown up, in a sort of fairytale country.
Austria. A land with more than thousand years of history. Knights, counts, dukes, archdukes, kings, emperors galore. If you rather go for the beautiful princess, you can find some neat examples, too.
By the way, I daresay that Austria makes a pretty good living milking that fat cow. Even today. There’s the tale of archduke Johann, for instance. Very popular in my home region Styria. He was a member of the Habsburg clan. Born in 1782, he married Anna Plochl, a simple postmaster’s daughter, against the explicit opposition of his family. Trite? No, no, no! That’s the yarn with which we spin the story of an outlasting romance in Austria. A romance that sells.
And almost everything is like that. On the surface at least. Visit Vienna, and you’ll see the truth of what I’m saying. It’s all about Mozart, and Maria Theresia, and empress Sissi, with a zest of Freud and the Sweet Era of Coffeehouse Writers.
We lost two World Wars? Go find traces of that. I wish you good luck.
We’ve never shied away from a good lie, either. If it stands a chance to be profitable, that is. In the 14th century, didn’t Rudolf IV forge a document creating the rank of archduke for the Habsburgs in order to show they were better than simple dukes?
You bet he did.
Didn’t we collectively accept a legend, invented in 1943 by the Moscow Declaration, claiming that Austria was the first victim to fall prey to the aggressive foreign policy of the National Socialists?
You bet we did. That 99.7561% of the population voted in favour of the Anschluss in 1938 is considered a minor detail in that matter.
Didn’t we collectively applaud when pope Paul VI. dubbed the country “The Isle of the Blessed”, shortly before I was born? No one knew exactly why, by the way. The pope, a refined and cultivated Italian, had intended no irony. Perhaps he had only meant to be nice. Yet we all adhered to that ridiculous idea.
And when you drive through Austria, you’ll have the overall impression that everything is swell, neat, clean. Beautiful wooden chalets with big balconies where geraniums bloom. An ever yodelling population wearing traditional garb. It’s like “The Sound of Music” come alive, over and over again.
Well, yes, some visitors are disappointed they don’t stumble upon any kangaroos. They’ve mistaken us for Australia. We simply pat them on their shoulders, offer a glass of schnapps, and yodel away their frustration.
I’ve went astray. Again. Let’s come back to my childhood years, then.
What I’m trying to tell you is this: I will not be able to recount a straight story. No pun intended, here. This part of my personal novel will come in odd bits and pieces. A chunk from when I was one year old, maybe. Then a chunk from when I turned four.
A medley, in other words. A childhood compilation. Childhood fairytales from an Austrian fairy boy.
I try and do my best to keep confusion at bay, though.

9/19/14

A letter and a kid (8)

“Remember me for what I was, not what I couldn’t be…” That’s a line from a song Anne Clark sang on her album “Hopeless Cases”, released in 1987. The music builds ornamental spirals around her expressive voice. Which sounds like a suitable background to this.
It’s a snapshot. Taken right after my christening in 1972, in front of the plain, white church of Kleindorf. It shows what I was.
What I couldn’t be, what I cannot be is manifold. But what I was is unique.
You can see the whole family on the photo. To be honest, a stranger could mistake their solemn faces for grim glares and conclude they have assembled for a funeral. Or a vendetta. Sure enough, they look like a Sicilian Clan straight out of “The Godfather”.
Pretty spot-on, in some ways. My family can feel like a Sicilian Clan. Without the Sicilian origins, that is.
Anyway. There’s grandma Cilli, in the centre, holding me in her arms. She’s my godmother, that’s why her stance and her face reflect honour and pride. She’s holding me tight, she’s holding me safe. A knowing half-smile shows around her lips.
To her right, my father. In a dark suit. Black-haired, handsome, slender, well-proportioned. He’s laughing at the camera, his teeth blinking, white and spotless. Ask everyone to look solemn, and he’ll still manage somehow to laugh. He holds one of my tiny fingers in his big hand.
To Cilli’s left, my mother, wearing a mini-skirt, a white blouse, a light jacket, her gaze directed at my father’s head. She looks smitten. As if to protect me, she has placed one hand on my bald, shiny head.
The priest to her left leans slightly on her to make sure he’s on the photo. He folds his hands as if saying a prayer. Another protection for me. He crinkles his wise face into an enigmatic expression.
Up front, my cousins. Sulking because they hate wearing their Sunday best. They have already hated sitting still in church and putting up with that long, dull ceremony. Now, they’d rather play Cowboys and Red Indians than to behave well. One has scraped her knee on the way to church. The scab is barely visible under the seam of her short, white dress. She’s wearing an oxeye-daisy in her hair.
Aunt Lucia’s already grey hair stands out behind grandma Cilli and my parents. Her features are set, resolute, dynamic; she's holding my one-and-a-half-year-old sister Kathi in her arm. Who doesn’t look amused. No, the baby girl frowns as if questioning the whole thing.
My aunt’s other arm lies on grandma Berta’s shoulder. Berta leans against her daughter, a walking stick in her hand. She looks small and vulnerable, her lips drawn into a stern, unsmiling line.
Around the two, my other aunts and uncles.
Grandpa Ferdi stands on the right margin, you only see one half of his body, his protruding belly. He stands straight, upright, exhaling his workman’s pride, winking at the camera. You have to guess whether he’s doing it because something amuses him. Or because he’s staring into the sun.
On the other margin, grandpa Hans has been cut in two by the photographer, too. He wears a discreet, polite expression, as if he’d come across a stranger’s christening. As if he didn’t have anything to do with the rest of us.
In the very centre of the snapshot, a tiny worm, wound into a clear-coloured sheet. They say this was I. Only my hands and my hairless head jut out of the sheet. I seem to concentrate, to meditate something essential, my fat little face wrinkled with the effort.
But look closer.
You’ll discover that I’m fast asleep, probably dreaming, and ignoring the fuss and flurry they’re all making.

- END OF CHAPTER -

9/17/14

A letter and a kid (7)

My mother’s reaction when the midwife presented me, clean and peaceful after my first outburst of anger: she was too shocked for words.
That is, she seemed tired but joyful enough. Until the midwife trilled, “Yes, ma’am—it’s a boy!”, parting the white cloth in which she had wrapped me, discovering my baby willy and red balls. She expected enthusiasm, maybe a bout of misplaced pride.
Instead of that, my mother started to sob.
The midwife, fearing a precocious outbreak of Baby Blues, thought it best to lay me on my mother’s lap, tiptoe away while she still could and find comfort in the hip flask filled with schnapps she had stored away in the staff room.
But my mother doesn’t do Baby Blues. She’s more into the Anything-can-be-a-problem-Blues. Some say it’s because she’s a Virgo, always worried and angsty. Others believe it’s because she thinks life too easy-peasy and has to invent problems in order to feel alive. Anyway, she grabbed the midwife by the sleeve and whined, “What have I done to deserve this?”
“What’s the matter, ma’am? Aren’t you happy?” the midwife asked.
“Oh… yes, I am. Very much,” my mother lied, looking more miserable by the minute. “Really… happy’s the word, yes.”
“You don’t look happy to me!” The midwife lifted me up again and held me tight, fearing that she was talking to a madwoman who might take the baby and smash it against the wall.
My mother’s voice became tiny, tears still streaming down her cheeks. “Well, it’s a boy! know how to deal with a girl, wash her, powder her, you know. But how shall I deal with… that?” She made a lame gesture toward my baby privates, still in full sight. “It looks so… fragile. What if I do anything wrong?”
“Oh!” The midwife sighed with relief, hiding tiny noddle and eggs from view at last. “That. Don’t you worry, ma’am. We’ll show you. It’s… well, different, yes. But not very complicated. You will learn in no time. Now, do you want to hold your son for a second?”
My mother looked only half-persuaded. But her hormones kicked in at last. Or her maternal instinct. Or simply her sense of duty. “Yes,” she said. “Give me my son.”
The midwife complied, her face expressing ‘All’s well that ends well, and I can go have me a quencher’.
My mother pressed her nose to my neck and inhaled my sweet-sour baby smell. Then she kissed me on the forehead and whispered, “I love you, my little son!” And she did mean it.

The next problem arose when my father came to discover his son. After a first explosion of joy, he fetched a chair and took me in his arms the way one picks up a piece of precious china. “How are we going to call him, darling?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” my mother replied, her tone meaning ‘I don’t care right now’. She had just delivered a baby, after all; she felt too weary to take a decision.
“Shall I ask Mom?” my cunning father asked.
This stirred the reaction he had hoped for. My mother sat up in bed, her eyes sparkling with determination. “Over. My. Dead. Body!” she hissed and held out her arms to reclaim me.
Amused, my father handed me back. “We could call him Johann, after your dad,” he proposed.
“Everyone will call him Hans. Or Hansi,” my mother said. “I don’t want people to use one of those hideous nicknames.”
“Ferdinand, after Dad?”
“People will call him Ferdi. Or Ferdl.”
“Georg?”
“Schursch.”
“Josef? Christian? Sebastian?”
“Sepp, Chris, Wastl.” My mother shuddered. “Why not choose something special?”
“Alright. My son will become someone special anyway,” my father replied. “He will do the things I couldn’t: go to university, have a fine career.”
Both pondered the question for a moment. Until my mother came up with a name. A special name. None they had ever used before. They knew no one who had that name, either. “If we called him… Cornelius?” she suggested.
“Hm… Cornelius Dohr. Sounds good. Okay. Let’s call him Cornelius,” my father said. Sealing my fate without knowing it.

9/14/14

A letter and a kid (6)

Mother and father became a regular item. After some mutual probing and testing, father proposed, and mother accepted. That’s how you did things when you were a young couple in love. They married in July 1970.
For their honeymoon, my father bought his first car, a light blue VW Beetle. He took my mother to the Tyrol. The photos of their trip show a happy young couple: a black-haired, handsome, manly guy in grey knickerbockers and a blue shirt dashes his bright smile at the radiant girl at his side, who is wearing huge Diva-sunglasses, knickerbockers and a matching shirt, with the majestic, snow-covered mountain range in the background. You can almost smell the freshness, the crispness of the air, the couple’s bliss drawing like a white halo around them.
The photo underlines that my parents couldn’t take their eyes off each other.
Nor their hands, it would seem.
As a result, my sister was born nine months later: a beautiful, healthy girl with a shock of black hair screaming her anger of landing in this world.
Mother wanted to call her Doris; father preferred Kerstin. Finally, grandma Berta proposed Klara. She had always been fond of that first name. My parents shuddered and formed an immediate coalition.
A week later, my sister was christened Kathi in the plain, white church of Kleindorf.
The months after Kathi’s birth were no easy ones for my mother. As my father was working alongside Ferdinand in the coalmine, he didn’t earn buckets of money. Thus, it was decided that my parents would live with Berta and Ferdi for a while. Mother and father occupied a small, unheated room, hardly big enough for a double bed and a small cupboard. My mother had to share Berta’s kitchen, Berta’s stove.
That was no undiluted pleasure because grandma could be peculiar. Small and frail like a sparrow, she was a stern, proud woman who didn’t easily show whether she appreciated someone or not. She accepted her daughter-in-law in the manner in which she had always accepted the twists and turns of her life: with an unmoved, stoical face. She appreciated my sister’s birth in her own, inimitable, wry style, too. “Neat,” she said, nodding in my mother’s direction. “She’s good at girls. That’s better than nothing.”
My father was Berta’s youngest and favourite child; as a result, my mother’s arrival in the family provoked some kind of passive-aggressive resistance. This female… newcomer wouldn’t encroach on Berta’s territory or upset her ways of doing things—no way! Therefore grandma continued to cook the meals for her husband and her son, leaving a small corner on the stove for my mother, who would prepare her own food and warm the milk for her baby.
Thus, some months passed by, my mother swallowing her pride and bearing with Berta, getting some discreet help from Ferdinand once in a while. He wouldn’t take sides in the mute war raging between his wife and his daughter-in-law. But whenever my mother needed something, he’d mumble, “Certainly, certainly.” Which counted as a non-negotiable decision.
In the still of their chilly bedroom, my parents continued to fiddly-diddle. Comfort fiddly-diddling—didn’t cost much, eased tensions.
And surprise! My sister was only six months old when my mother became pregnant again.
The day she found out, she was immediately reminded of her uncomfortable situation. She hadn’t planned to raise a second kid in grandma Berta’s shadow. Anger, frustration and helplessness welled up in her, with no one around she could let it out on.
Huh! When my father came home from work that evening, expecting a peaceful moment with his beloved wife and his daughter, my mother had transformed into a pressure cooker in high steam. Oblivious as usual, he stroked her cheek and said, “You look a bit tense, darling.”
Tense?” my mother screamed. “Tense? I’m not tense, Mister Don’t-worry-I’ll-be-careful! I’m outright bloody livid!”
That was the only time he came within a whisker of being slapped by my mother. But remembering her dignity, she straightened her spine. And broke the news without further ado. Adding that this was the bloody straw that broke the bloody camel’s back. To crown her speech, she threatened my father that she’d bloody never bloody uncross her bloody legs again. Ever.
Unfazed, Father said, “Hush, hush, darling! What if we tried to find a flat for our own?”
Oh, he knew what my mother wanted to hear! Open-mouthed, she stared at him, dried her eyes—six “bloodys” in a row had made them quite teary—, forced a feeble smile, and asked, “Can we afford it?”
“There’s always a solution,” my father answered. Then, he drew her into a tight hug and murmured into her ear, “I love you darling. And we’ll love that new baby, too!”
That’s when my sister started to scream. She was hungry. Or jealous in advance.
I was born in July 1972 in the maternity ward of the nearest hospital, in a town called Knittelfeld. The first environment I discovered must have consisted of clinical whites and shiny steel, the small town, the meadows and peaks and forests of the Alps shimmering outside the hospital windows in idle summer colours.
To my utter disappointment, no fairy was stooping over my cradle whispering promises of a lucky fate. Only the round face of a midwife in her forties, gleaming cheeks and red nose testifying to the woman’s healthy penchant for high percentage liquors. We locked eyes, both flushed, one smiling, the other one frowning.
Me.
I was scandalized, sensing that this was just the beginning. Life would be a long series of disappointments, things would go downward from now on. I decided that a neat and piercing scream would best express my disarray, not knowing that my sister Kathi had already come to the same conclusion some months before.
That’s how I left a state of perfect, primitive and original happiness and entered life.

9/11/14

My bride from the Simien Mountains

Sweeping, I am always sweeping
the muddy, red ground in front of our hut,
and singing songs of love and longing,
of ecstasy and muggy nights,
songs that only our skinny goats can hear
in the loneliness of the rough, green mountains

By and by, my skin has turned as dark as yours
while the days float by
and die, one by one, like mayflies,
and rain veils percolate from a leaky, white sky,
and sometimes a yellow glow pierces the morning haze,
and sometimes our chilly evenings gleam,
orange and ginger,
into a lightless night

You wear white smiles
and strong perfumes:
fresh coffee, berbere and mitmita;
together, we grind the teff for our daily injera,
prepare a skillet full of doro wat,
clap our hands

The first day, I've been bold and stupid, saying,
‘You and your people never really entered history.
Your present is too full of nostalgia
for the lost paradise of childhood
to leave room for progress.’
Showing me your big teeth,
you've just laughed,
‘I prefer our stories to your history.’

And then, you've started telling me
tales of foxes and hyenas,
travellers and brides,
donkeys and mules,
leopards, apes,
baboons and trees,
and weeks have turned into months,
springs into autumns,
and my hair has turned grey,
and my voice as gentle,
my lips as welcoming,
my smile as wide and warm
as yours

9/8/14

A letter and a kid (5)

Oh. Yes. Wow! The letter. I prattle and blat, and the letter-story seems to be nowhere in sight. Sorry. But I warned you: I’m a procrastinator. And a dreamer. We dreamers always focus on dispensable details. We rarely do essentials.
Anyway, even dispensable details teach us a lesson. In probability, for instance. I mean, what were the odds for me to be born? On my mom’s side, grandma Cilli could’ve been living in Slovenia instead of Austria, right? And grandpa Hans could’ve been killed during the war like the millions that were.
On my dad’s side, things look just as haphazard. There was only a little chance for grandma Berta and grandpa Ferdinand to meet. After they did, Ferdi the Communist could’ve been shot by the Nazis like his comrades. My dad could’ve been killed by an Allied bomb.
But my grandparents did survive, against all odds. They did meet. They did have kids. My mom on one side, my dad on the other.
And what were the odds of my parents meeting? Mom and dad were living more than a hundred kilometres apart, after all. Back in the 50s and 60s, considering both their upbringing and social origins, what would’ve been the expected turn of events for them? They could’ve stayed within a ten-kilometre-reach of where they were born. Most people did back then. They could’ve married someone in their vicinity. They would’ve had kids. But different kids. Not me.
So you would be reading a different story right now.
Or no story at all.
See? That’s a dreamer’s material. Would’aves and could’aves.
And don’t tell me it was predestination. I don’t believe in that. I prefer to believe in odds. The odder the odds, the better the result. Just look at me.
Right. Back to our letter.
At sixteen, my mother left her parents’ home to start an apprenticeship as a sales assistant. Her training took place in a small town some kilometres north of Murnitz. Times were serious and grim for a youngster, back then. You didn’t have much of a ball. It wasn’t all about the latest jeans-fashion, or spending hours on a mobile talking and texting, or sulking in one’s bedroom because the parents wouldn’t allow you to spend the night at your best friend’s.
My mom attended a vocational school every second week. And worked in a grocery store the rest of the time. She lived with six other girls at their employer’s, in a cold, sparsely furnished room. Food was scarce, too, because the owner of the grocery store was a no-nonsense skinflint. He treated his apprentices like slaves.
Sometimes, my mom would do the inventory with her boss. He would sit on a chair, reading items off a list, and she would haste from one corner to the other to check the stocks. Apart from the boss’s mumbled words, the storeroom was completely silent. Once, my mom’s stomach started to rumble. She tried to still the noise, ashamed, but secretly hoping that her boss might notice, too. He might conclude that she was hungry. Maybe he’d finally get it that the portions he served were too small.
But he continued as if nothing had happened.
My mom’s best friend was called Karin. They’d help each other backcomb their hairdos, they’d starch their petticoats together, they’d smoke the odd cigarette, hidden behind a chestnut tree. The sixties were roaring somewhere else; in London, maybe, or in New York. Not in that little town. And yet, in their shy and nice ways, the two girls enjoyed their last teenage years. They worked hard, they learned their lessons, they snickered and covered their mouths when a handsome young man entered the grocery store. And regained their composure after their boss’s wife had shot them a murderous glance.
Finally, Karin finished her apprenticeship and found a job in a grocery store situated in my village. Without hesitating a second, she moved to Kleindorf. The store where she was working was a stone’s throw from where my grandparents were living. Just across the street, in fact.
It’s in that grocery store that Karin saw my father for the first time.
And that’s when she wrote the letter to my mom. My dad wasn’t the main subject; Karin was just babbling on about her situation, the region, the regular customers. It was nothing but a harmless letter a young woman would write to her best friend.
“There’s this young guy,” Karin wrote. “Quite a looker, lemme tell you! Black hair, mischievous smile, coal black eyes. A pity, though—he’s got a glass eye!” Now, luck would have it that the owners of that grocery store were looking for a second sales assistant. Karin innocently suggested my mom, “She’s excellent. She’ll do the job, I promise. And she’s about to finish her apprenticeship!”
So my mom received a second letter with a job proposal. For a moment, she was undecided. The place was so far away from home! Would she be able to like her new environment? Would she be able to leave behind everything she knew? Her parents, her little rivulet, the farmers, the softly rolling hills?
Finally, she made up her mind. A job was a job, and hell!, she wouldn’t spend her life fretting over things she had no answer for. She accepted, packed her few belongings, informed her parents, and moved to the village.
That happened in—wait. 1967? 1968?
The rest was simple. One day, my dad entered the grocery store and approached the counter. Karin nudged my mom, whispering, “That’s the one! You know—the guy with the glass eye!” Then, she disappeared in the back shop to have a look at the stocks.
My mom served the young man and couldn’t help but notice that oh yes!, the young fellow was just as good-looking as Karin had told her. Mischievous smile that discovered cute little dimples; curious and sparkling coal black eyes; full, dark hair. He seemed a tad small for a lad, but lean and—she shivered with the thought—beefy, yes, outright beefy! When they proceeded to the cashier’s desk, she enjoyed the sight of his tight little bum and his muscular calves.
While cashing in the money, she continued to check him out. Discreetly, of course; she didn’t want to be taken for an easy lay. Still, that glass-eye-thing intrigued her. To her amazement, she couldn’t detect even a trace of this peculiar item. Had science progressed so much that glass-eyes had become invisible? How then had Karin been able to spot it? she asked herself.
My dad noticed that the unknown young woman was ogling him with interest. You have to know that, when my mom discreetly checks out someone, she stops short of staring open-mouthed at the person. So dad moved closer, her sweet smell enveloping him. Definitely—this young lass looked as if she was searching some kind of answer in his face!
My dad realized that he liked what he saw, too: a soft, young woman with a bob cut, generous curves, and a romantic longing in her eyes. Damn yes, he liked it a lot. And—bzing! The two weren't aware that good old Cupid was preparing to take aim and shoot one of his arrows. But shoot he did. And Cupid being Cupid, he hit two hearts spot-on.

9/5/14

A letter and a kid (4)

Anyway. My grandparents married in 1925, in the month of January. The wedding took place in the plain, white village church. I’m sure grandpa Ferdi had a pint or two. And the odd glass of schnapps. To wash down his Communist pride, to forget that entering the church, even for his own wedding, would be some kind of treason.
It was a cold, cold winter’s day. The country was hidden under a thick, harsh crust of snow. Fat, grey clouds covered the sky. At noon, a blizzard broke out and made the last, vague silhouettes disappear behind a curtain of snowflakes. When grandma Berta looked out of a window, she saw a last, hardy raven cross the farmyard, looking for shelter. The wind was howling, the wood in the stove was cracking.
Berta had a frugal lunch with the farmer’s family. A piece of rancid bread. A cup of substitute coffee because it was a special day. She cleaned up the kitchen. Then she took her best dress from the drawer. She put on her new shoes—she had saved up quite a sum to buy them. She wrapped a shawl around her skinny shoulders. A scarf over her head. She put on her shabby green winter coat. As she didn’t own gloves, she dug her hands deep in the pockets of her coat.
Ferdi didn’t come to pick her up. He didn’t propose, he wouldn't even have thought he should. In his world, there was no place for sentimentalism.
Therefore, Berta walked to Kleindorf all alone, in her new shoes, which were too thin for winter. Three kilometres in a blizzard. She scarcely saw the trail leading from the farm to the road or the road itself. She made her way by intuition, rifting through the snowstorm. After a few minutes she didn't feel her fingers anymore. She didn't feel her feet anymore.

Things went smoothly for the two of them. Grandma Berta managed to convince Ferdinand not to get involved in the Civil War that broke out in 1934, opposing left and right wing partisans. He kept a low profile under the new fascist regime that followed, too. A first son was born, then two daughters.
In 1938, Germany finally invaded and annexed Austria. The persecutions started. Even in the smallest jerkwater towns.
The new, icy wind came blowing through our calm, little Kleindorf, too. One day, in the still of the grey morning hours, men in black uniforms arrived in dark cars. Hamlet after hamlet, block after block, street after street, they knocked on certain doors. Dogs would bark, one could hear harsh orders, women crying and begging.
An hour later, lines of men and boys, in fact all the local Communists and Socialists, young and old, were led toward the central square with their hands held up high above their heads. A cemetery silence fell over the village, only disturbed by the occasional sigh, the odd swish of a curtain someone was drawing aside to watch the macabre parade.
The men in black distributed shovels and made their captives dig a deep ditch. When the work was done, the highest-ranking Nazi officer barked, “Position yourselves along the ditch! Turn around!”
The captives complied.
The Nazis took target. Their sten guns crackled. And more than two dozen men tumbled into the ditch.
Kleindorf stank of gunpowder and death.
Grandpa Ferdi wasn’t among the killed. How he escaped is a mystery to me. I don’t know, either, how he managed to survive until the end of the war. Did he climb the slope behind the village, hide in the forest, and wait out the war? Or did he find shelter on one of the farms?
I’m grateful he survived, in any case. And so should you. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here to tell you my story. Because my dad, the last of my Ferdis’ and Berta’s five children, was only born in 1944.
And dad was so close to getting killed before he could celebrate his second birthday, too! The Allied forces were bombing the region, trying to destroy the coalmine, the Nazi steel plants, and the military airport that had been built in the middle of the basin—anything to end that stupid, deadly war.
That day, grandma Berta had sent my oldest aunt Lucia to one of the farms nearby to get some eggs and milk. And Lucia had taken my dad with her.
She was walking back home, following the dusty country road, whistling a song to her baby brother, when the sirens were sounded in the distance, announcing an impending air raid.
The merry tune died on Lucia’s lips. She clasped the child more tightly and looked up.
The sky was empty, a big blue ocean of spring. Then Lucia discovered the tiny spots appearing from behind the Eastern summits, an entire squadron of silvery hornets moving toward her. She gulped and sped up, fast and faster, until she almost ran. She had to find shelter, and quickly, too.
But the first airplanes were upon her, sparkling like beautiful angels of death, before she could reach the nearest farm. The engines roared above her head, she could hear the first explosions in the distance, their deep and terrifying Boom!-Boom!-Boom! drawing closer and closer.
At last, weeping and in panic, she jumped into a trench, protecting the screaming child with her body. She was trembling with fear, praying that the high grass would hide them from danger.
Luckily, the Allied pilots had more important targets to destroy than a teenage girl and a baby.
As to grandpa Ferdi, he survived the war, too. He worked, he raised his five kids. But his imprint on my life remains fuzzy. Unless you count his legacy in terms of precocious baldness and constant thirst. Thanks to him, I’m no teetotaller, quite the contrary.
What remains of him are a few black-and-white photos. In one of them, he’s pushing my sister’s baby stroller: bald and paunchy Ferdinand Dohr, big smile and proud look on his face.
There are memory fragments, too. My granddad smoking his pipe. My granddad coming home dead drunk one day. It was a Sunday, shortly before noon. He had shit in his trousers, that drunk he was. Grandma Berta threw a fit, as who wouldn’t.
“Even an ox is brighter than you!” she yelled while yanking his soiled trousers off his legs. “An ox stops drinking when it ain’t thirsty anymore!”

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.