It is 11:45 and we are in hotel room in Baden.
It is an unremarkable room in that it resembles most mid priced hotel rooms in Europe: It has very simple modern wood furniture, two twin beds that are placed directly adjacent to each other, a small table with chairs for writing postcards, a euro styled television and a frigio bar. There are no pieces of art on the wall. The door is open to a small balcony that overlooks a typically beautiful Austrian park with its well manicured lawns that you can not walk on and immaculately planted flower beds that seem always to be in season. This afternoon an ompah band entertained us with an hour and a half concert of Austrian classics and Broadway show tunes and this evening we had dinner at the Grand Casino that directly abuts the park.
It is quiet. The only sound coming through the open door is the sound of a passing car its tires crackling against the wet pavement. The smell of hydrangea’s and lilacs are wafting in through the open door. My father is restless in his bed. Instead of the steady stream of snoring that I normally would hear I hear nothing except the occasional rustle of his duvet as he tries to find a comfortable position. Sleep is eluding me as well. My stomach is still shaky, my mind still buzzing with the events of the day.
I was very happy to leave Sopron this morning. It was a perfect morning for drive with soft sunlight, a feint breeze and mild temperatures and I knew the Austrian countryside would be beautiful. But it is more than that. My father has been very sick in this hotel. Whatever the gastrointestinal illness that first manifested itself in Vienna really took root here. He spent most of his time here asleep or in the toilet. The room despites its open windows has taken on the smell of a sick room and the bathroom lacking any ventilation whatsoever has a fetid evil smell somewhere between third world slit trench and an unclean litter box. I am convinced that the nausea and uncomfortable feeling that I have in my gut are from this place and that as soon as this place is in my rear view mirror the sooner that I will begin to feel better.
After I load our Opel Astra with our luggage I go in search of my father. I find him in the most unlikely of places doing the most unlikely of things. He is in the dining room eating breakfast. I am not eager for breakfast this morning and for some reason I decide to watch him for a little while as he makes his way through the breakfast buffet. He is wearing a decidedly dad clothes, a light blue shirt of which he has so many and that he has worn for so many years that I secretly call it Ernie blue, twill pants that he has in a variety of khaki colors including the brown that he is wearing today, and dark brown half boots that he has had in some variety for as long as I can remember. It is an outfit that is neither in style nor out of style, practical and I decide that is as good a metaphor for my father as I can think of.
He is also not moving well this morning. His shoulders are stooped and he is bending forward at the hips. Instead of lifting his feet he is shuffling them a little bit more than normal. He is walking old today and I don’t like it. My pops shouldn’t be walking old. He should be standing straight up and walking tall like he is in my memories. These are things that we can fix through better exercise and stretching that he finds boring but will give him a better quality of life and I vow silently when we get back to the states that I will work with him on stomach exercises, and back exercises that should help him to regain his posture. I know that the likelihood of my father doing these exercises in the way that they are supposed to be done and in the numbers required to really help straighten him out are slim but I also know that I have to try. I don’t want my Pops looking or feeling old. It implies too many things that I would prefer not to think about.
When I finally make it to the table I find my father fully engaged in breakfast. Not only has he picked up some picked some yogurt, cheese and breads from the buffet but he has ordered some scrambled eggs from the waiter. I am impressed but not surprised. Impressed that my father’s recovery from this bug that had laid him low just a couple of days ago had progressed to the point where he would eat a substantial breakfast before getting into a car with no assurances on when the next rest stop would be. Not surprised because my father has always been a big eater. In fact, the thing that made him seek out medical help when he developed lymphoma was that he could not eat an entire sausage so I am happy that he is eating.
The waiter comes and asks me in Hungarian what I would like for breakfast. At least that is what I think that he has said as I don’t understand a word he is saying. I reply in the only words in Hungarian that I can speak with any sort of confidence “Coca Cola.” My father looks at me and asks “Don’t you feel well?” knowing that drinking soda, let alone Coke is not something that I regularly engage in.
I respond “No, no I am fine. I am just not that hungry and my stomach is a little queasy so I don’t want to push it. I don’t want to tell him that this morning that I was forced to take two Immodium and had nearly thrown up for the first time in nearly 20 years. I don’t want to tell him given my druthers I would be in bed asleep. I don’t want our trip together to be about me being sick. I don’t want my father to feel like he has to take care of me. This is our chance to explore together and I don’t want to be the one who, excuse the expression, craps it up.
We leave Sopron on a route that takes us directly past the house my grandmother was born in. As we pass it I am filled with memories of her. How she always made me feel loved and complete. I thought about her hugs and how they made me feel safe. I think about how she smelled. I could picture her smiling at me and shaking her head in the way that she did sometimes. I think about that this is where it began for her and as a consequence for both my Dad and me. So as I drive by I wave and say “Good-bye Grandma.” I looked over and see my father staring at the red house as we drive by and I wonder what he is thinking. My memories of her are when she was older and life had taken its toll… From when she was a stranger in a strange land. His memories of her are from this place and from a time where life had not extracted so much. And even though my grandmother has been dead almost 30 years I miss her and I wonder what it must be like for him to be without his mother for so long. Her funeral is the only time in my life I have ever heard him sob.
I know better than to ask him about his thoughts. He will only crack wise or make a joke. So instead I concentrate on my driving and leave him to his thoughts and for a while we drive on in silence.
We cross the Hungarian/Austrian border with barely an acknowledgement from the Guards of either country. Apparently, we do not look worthy of them wasting their time on and just like I do when I clear customs or enter a country anywhere, I feel like I have gotten away with something. It is a nice feeling and soon the car is speeding down A2 at 140km hours.
As on the trip to Sopron, my father is the navigator. He is blessed with a great sense of direction and the map reading skills the army teaches its officers. He has also been to this part of the world many times. So I have faith that he will get us to our destination of Fahrafeld. Still I think that our decision to take B and C roads instead of just the A’s has more to do with happenstance than planning just as I have no doubts that more than a couple of times we made decisions that took us farther away from our destination rather than closer.
It is sunny and warm and our windows are open and the smell of flowers and freshly cultivated fields fill the compartment of the car. Whether it is because of our stomach problems or the fact that my father and I have spoken more in the last three days than we have in years we are not talking very much. Instead we pass the time looking beyond our windows. We pass through vineyards with their meticulously kept vines greening and in bloom. .There are small farms that look dainty by American standards, with freshly cultivated tracks and farmers atop green tractors often wearing brightly covered overalls. There are fields densly packed with yellow bright yellow flowers. We pass through small towns that look like they belong more in n gauge train set than in real life.
At one point I comment to my father that everything looks familiar enough to be comforting but just different enough that we could be in an episode of the Outer Limits. But he is lost in some thoughts beyond the reaches of the car and does not respond so I drive on.
We are in the hills now and the scenery has changed from farms and fields to meadows and trees. Not to far from Pottenstein which is the nearest town of any size close to Fahrafeld my father yells at me “Turn right, turn right here” in the same tone he used to use when he was teaching me to drive. I do my best not to let his tone of voice get the better of me but for a few minutes I am one pissed off 17 year old whose father is doing him no favor by teaching him how to drive. I slam on the breaks and still manage to make the turn a little faster than I probably should have.
My father realizes that the tone of voice that he used is not appropriate and as he has done so often in the past when this is the case, changes the subject. He says “ I know where we are now. You see that building up there on the hill, that is horticultural research station for the University of Vienna. I remember it from the last time we were here.”
He says this with satisfaction and there is also an element of excitement that I have not heard in his voice on this trip. So I ask him “Are you excited about going to Fahrafeld and he replies in a manner that is typical of him “I don’t know if you would exactly call it excited….”
I can tell that what is to follow is a discourse on the appropriate word for how he feels and I turn down the volume. I realize that this discussion is just a way for my father to mask his feelings. For whatever reason traveling to this place has brought more emotion to the surface than all of the other things we have done on this trip. More than seeing his best friend in the hospital; more than visiting the graveyards of his relatives; more than visiting the house his mother was born in. As he talks in the background I wonder why he feels so emotionally connected to this place. All I can remember him telling me about Fahrafeld is that he used to go there to visit his Aunt in summer and it is the place he learned to love buttermilk a beverage that to this day he claims is the best drink in the world to relieve the heat of a summer day.
So after he has finished talking I say in my best smart ass way “You know I didn’t listen a lot to you as a kid, tell me about you and this place.”
So he reminds me that when my grandmother was very young her mother died. That her father who already had 12 children had a hard time running a household with that many kids and no wife so that some of the kids were parceled out to other relatives as was the custom at the time. Little Jeni, age 4, was sent to Fahrafeld to live with her Aunt Pepi her mothers sister. She lived their until she was 14 when she sent away to a technical school so that she could learn how to be a seamstress. My grandmother always thought of her Aunt as her mother so it was natural that when my father got too old to spend summer’s in the city that she would take him to her to spend the summer. He said that he would arrive by train in the early summer and not leave again until school was about to begin. . He tells me that his Aunt Pepi was the only grandmother he ever knew and says this is a such a wistful voice and I know that I can not press further so once again we drive in silence for a while.
We come to a T-intersection and my father tells me to take a right. I look at the sign and it says Rt 212. When I suggest the irony of the Rt, 212 being the NYC area code, to my father and he just nods his full attention on the road ahead and trying to find Pepi’s house. The road is of the type that German performance cars were made for. It is narrow, winding, and well maintained. It is also quite picturesque. Along the drivers side of the road is a fast moving stream about 5 meters wide that you can see the occasional fly fisherman and fields full of wildflowers and what appear to be Dandelions. On the right side are small cottages, the Austrian version of a cape, in brightly colored hues and a mountain dense with trees.
After about 5 minutes we pass a white rectangular sign with the word Fahrafeld written on it. Almost immediately upon passing into the town the road becomes canopied by trees on either side. The houses become more frequent and my father, who is normally calm to the point of stoic, is visibly agigtated and keeps telling me to slow down. I look in my rear view mirror and see that a long line of traffic has built up behind us and tell my father that I really can’t slow down much more. This news is greeted with a harrumph and visible annoyance. The town itself is beautiful with small cottages and what can only be described as chalet’s in various bright colors densely populating the right hand side of the road. On the stream side it appears that they have created a small park with paved paths and flower beds. The town does not last long. A couple of minutes at most and before too long we see the same white rectangular sign with Fahrafeld written on it only this time there is a red slash going through it.
My father who was agitated before is now quite upset and I can tell by the way he tells me to “turn the car around” that he is royally pissed off. I see a picnic area on the right hand side of the road and I pull into it hoping to use it as a jug handle to turn around. I don’t want to drive with my father this annoyed. I don’t want to have an argument with him and I know that in his current state the 17 year old in me could come out at any moment so I pull the car over and park. He barks “What are you doing?” and I respond that the scene in front of us….a grassy meadow dotted with dandelions, a farmhouse with a red roof surrounded by trees, framed by a mountain in the background…is lovely and I want to take a photograph. I take my time and probably more photographs than I should but the result is what I had hoped for as my father is visibly calmer when I re-enter the car.
I try to go slower as we go back through town but the road is a very busy one and before too long there is once again a long line of traffic behind us. When I see in the middle of this village a place to pull over I seize the opportunity. My father is looking around and tells me in a very disappointed tone that he thinks that we may have come all this way for nothing as he can’t spot his Aunts house and that he is afraid that it might have been torn down. I can tell that he’s upset and wish that I could find the words to comfort him but I can’t so I remain silent.
He says you see that over there. I nod. He says that is a war memorial and lists the names of the dead from this town. One of the kids I use to play with as a kids name is listed there. As I pull back onto the road, I think about how bizarre a world we live in. How two childhood friends could end up on either side of a war and one makes it and the other does not. It reminds me of how random life is and as always I am disturbed by this.
I am broken out of my thoughts by my father yelling at me to pull over. Luckily, just beyond a small bridge passing over the stream, I spot a place to pull the car off the road and park.. My father points at a light blue house with a red tile roof and only windows facing the street and says “That is your Aunt Pepi’s house….they have clearly renovated it but that is clearly her house.” His tone of voice which just minutes earlier had been harsh and upset is now that of relief and delight and I can tell that seeing this house has transformed him in a way that I can’t imagine.
We both get out of the car and study the house from the distance. My father is wearing his signature Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses so it is hard to figure out what is going on inside of him but there is a whisper of a smile on his face so whatever is going on I suspect is a good thing. As I pull my camera from the backseat so that I can take photographs of the house my father turns and walks towards the bridge. My fathers steps are small and deliberate, probably the result of the long drive, and it upsets me to realize that he is walking just like the octogenarian he is. I snap a few photos and when I finish my father is turning the corner onto the bridge and disappears from sight.
I hurry to catch up with him but when I turn the corner my father is no where to be found. Instead I see a 10 year old boy standing in the middle of the bridge, surveying the scenery, as if he were a Prince and this was his own private kingdom.
The boy finished with surveying his property walked over to the rail and scoops up a hand full of small rocks that lay near by and begins to toss them one by one into the rushing stream below. I stare at the boy not quite sure of what to make of this transformation. He is wearing a dark blue polo shirt with khaki shorts and brown ankle height shoes that laced all the way up. Not too different from what my father was wearing this morning but dated as if you would see the clothes in a black and white photographs whose edges were curled and worn.
I walk up to him and lean across the rail. Below the water is running rapidly over smooth rocks and the babble of the water is loud but soothing. For some reason I am nervous to speak, as if by saying something aloud will make this apparition disappear. So for a while the boy and I just stand, our faces warm in the spring sun, and watch the water disappear under the bridge. Finally, the desire to talk to this boy who will be my father is greater than my fear of his disappearance and I ask “What is the name of this river.”
He replies “It called the Triesting” and then points and says “Look over there by the rock in the center of the stream. Do you see the trout?” I look to where he is pointing and I see what appear to be two golden trout, nearly camouflaged by their background and the glint of the sun off the water. We watch as they make their way upstream and out of sight. Eventually I ask him “Do you ever go fishing here?”
He replies, in the gushing way that 10 years old speak when they are particularly excited about something, “I don’t have a fishing poll and neither do my friends so we can’t really fish here but” he says pointing to place just beyond a field of tall grass and dandelions “over there is another smaller stream. My buddies and I sometimes go over there where the water doesn’t move so fast and you can straddle the brook, and we make a noose out of wire. We wait until we see a fish and then we dip the lasso in the water and just at the right moment we pull on the noose and we catch ourselves a fish.” He looks up at me his chin sticking in the air and proudly adds “You don’t think it can be done, but it can.”
I have no doubt that it can be done because if this little boy says it can, it can. Instead I think about how tempting those fish must of have been to him and his friends. I imagine the serious conversations and the plotting he and his buddies must have had to devise a plan to catch the fish and the arguments and eureka moments that must of occurred while they perfected their device and how to use it. I can only imagine how proud they must have been when they caught their first fish and I wonder who they showed first and what they said to them.
And then I too am struck by a memory. I am very young and my father, brother and I are going for a walk through the woods together. It is very green and the forest so lush that it blocks out most of the sunlight but the path is clear and we eventually make our way to a wide but very narrow stream. My father helps my brother and I take our shoes and socks off and we wade into the cold water. Picking up some stones my father begins to make a small U shaped structure with the open end in the direction of the oncoming water. He tells my brother and I that these are minnow traps and says that the fish come with the flow of water and can’t make it back out due to the current.
I am broken out of my reverie by the ten year old asking “Do you want to go for a walk?” I nod and we begin down to walk a dirt path that I would have sworn was paved just a few minutes ago. He points ahead of us and says “That’s the canal.” And sure enough just a head of is a slow moving span of water that I don’t recall seeing on our drive into town. Nonetheless we walk along it for a short while until we reach a wooden dock. The boy takes off his shoes and then unwraps a piece of cloth that is wrapped around his foot like a bandage, and dips his feet into the water.
I ask, pointing to what was wrapped around his feet, “What are those?” He replies unabashedly that his Aunt Pepi made them for him. That he didn’t have any socks so this is what he put around his feet to protect them from rubbing against the leather of his shoes. I nod not quite comprehending what it must have been like to grow up without socks. When I was a kid they always seem to be disappearing into my shoes.
I take my off my sneakers and we both dangle our feet in the cold water of the canal, and we bask in the sun like two turtles on a log. Accoss the canal the breeze slowly moves the grass in the meadow. I ask him “What do you all day?”
He tells me that sometimes he helps the local shepherd take the animals from the village up to the meadow. I must of looked confused because he explains that “His Aunt Pepi had an arrangement with the local shepherd to take him along when he would take the animals of the town up to the pasture . In the morning the shepherd, who was some young guy from the village, would pick up the local livestock and take them up to a place where they could graze. Then sometime in the late afternoon they would walk back into town with the animals and drop them off one by one at people’s houses.
I think about what a practical solution this was for everyone. How folks around there were not farmers but they had livestock to supply the with basics like milk, meat and fabric but none of them had enough to warrant having a shepherd of their own so theirs was communal. How practical too for my father’s aunt. She must of have been in her 70’s back then and having a 10 year old running around and underfoot must have been quite a challenge so she invented a day camp for him…very different from my day camp experience…but camp none the less.
Thinking about my own favorite experiences at camp I asked him “What did you do for lunch.” He tells me that his Aunt would put together what ever she had in her larder for him. Perhaps a hunk of cheese, maybe a piece of salami and some bread and if was really lucky a piece of hard candy and she would wrap it all in a handkerchief for him to carry. The idea of lunch wrapped in a handkerchief seems so foreign to me but this was time and a place before lunch boxes or paper bags and I think about the mountain of little conveniences that separate the past from the present.
I ask him what he does when they get to the pasture and the little boy tells me proudly that a lot of the time he helps the shepherd take care of the animals. I imagine this little boy herding cows, sheep, and goats….running after them, keeping them from wandering off and from harm, watching for predators, making friends with the animals. I think about how different that this must have been from his life in a fourth floor walk up in Vienna, where he slept in the kitchen, and the bathroom was not in the apartment but down the hall. How different it must have been walking the peaceful paths of Fahrafeld from the streets of Vienna ever more dangerous with burgeoning anti-Semitism. I know longer wondered why my father, the city kid, ever considered becoming a Zoologist, or is so kind to animals or when he is a jovial mood says in his retirement he would to raise goats.
I remark that even with all the things that he helps the shepherd with that there must be a lot time that there is nothing for him to do and I ask him what he does then. He tells me that he goes off exploring in the woods. That he goes and finds new paths and new places to see in the forest. That he goes looking for birds and animals and that sometimes if his friends have come with them they play the cowboys and Indians that he has no doubt read about in books he loves. I smile at him and ask “Do you ever get lost?” He replies with the confidence of every ten year old “Never!”
And I think about the countless hours I have spent with my father in the woods. The hikes we have taken…the animals, birds and plants that he has pointed out for me. I remembered when I was ten and my father, brother and I were hiking in Humboldt National Forest and we had gone far from camp and I told my Dad that I thought we were lost and he had told me in absolute confidence not to worry. I believed him then but now know where that confidence has come from.
I also remember the father’s day five years previous at Skilak Lake when I left my father behind to climb a trail. I wonder what the ten year old I am now sitting with now thought then. I realize how painful it must have been for him not to be able to take that walk and the funk I felt in the Alaskan woods return for a moment.
The boy says “You want to walk over to the train station.” I nod in agreement and walk down the dusty path our shoes dangling from our hands. I ask “ Do you come here by train.”
“Yes. When it gets warm in the city my mother brings me out. We sit in the back of the train, in third class and it is not so bad unless its really hot and gets really stuffy back there.”
“Can’t you open a window?”
“No, Muti won’t let me. She is frightened that the sparks from coal fire in the engine will light her hair on fire.”
I smile at him and say “Does she stay here all summer with you?”
He shakes his head and says “No. She has to work so she just comes sometimes for a few days. And you want to know a secret? I think I may have some psychic abilities! Sometimes when I hear the train whistle blowing in the distance I try to concentrate really hard on whether or not she is on the train and if I think that she is I will run down to the station to greet her and I almost never wrong!”
I think about the first summer I spent at camp and how I missed my mother and have no trouble imagining how tender and sweet those reunions must have been. How it must have been pretty lonely for both mother and child to be without each other without phone or perhaps even mail to comfort them. I also wonder about this boy’s talk of psychic ability. My father, the scientist, has never talked this way yet I find it very believable.
It is February 1979 and I am in Syracuse, New York. The night before a snow storm had rattled my windows all evening but it isn’t the storm that has gotten me up so early. It was quiet now a thick layer of white snow lay every where silencing the normally busy apartment complex where I live. I am up because during the night I have an amazingly realistice dream that has disturbed me. My grandmother Jenny visited me in my sleep and told me that the art deco garnet ring that was my grandfather’s, and was given to me my dad, which had been lost since my return from Christmas break, is underneath the front seat of my car. In a stupor and still in my pajamas I walk through the snow drifts to where my orange VW bug is parked and proceed to look where my grandmother has told me to despite the fact that I have looked there before. The ring is exactly where she said it would be. I am surprised and stunned but most delighted that I will not have to tell my father that I have lost my grandfahers ring. I put it on and walk back into the house.
I am sitting on my couch, drinking my first cup of coffee and admiring my ring finger when the phone rings. It is my brother. He is calling to tells me that sometime during the night my grandmother has passed away.
We stop just shy of the train station. It is a simple structure of dark hewn wood with a small home next to it. I have no troubles imagining a steam engine pulling into the station nor the warm embraces of a mother and son.
We turn around and walk back the way we came and I ask the little boy what he does at night. He tells me that because of the mountains in the west it gets dark pretty early around here so that he usually just goes home and has a simple meal with Aunt Pepi and goes to sleep on a horsehair mattress that she has set up for him. Knowing the curiosity of the boy and of his love of books, I ask him if he reads before he goes to sleep. He says he sometimes does but it is hard becomes his Aunt’s house is without electricity and is only lit by oil lamps.
In the distance I hear the sound of bicycle bell ringing. “Tring Tring Tring Tring”. The ten year old looks up at me and says “It is the ice cream man! Aunt Pepi gave me a some money in case he came today. Would you hold these for me” and with that he hands me his shoes and goes tearing down the path and over the bridge to main road. I watch as a man riding a rickety bicycle with a brown wood case hanging in front of the handle bars comes to stop in front of the boy. They talk for a little bit and then the man opens up the case and after a few seconds his hand emerges with an ice cream cone that he hands to the boy. The boy walks slowly back constantly licking at the cone so by the time he reaches me it is almost gone. He offers me a bite and when I decline he pops the rest of the cone into his mouth and I hand him back his shoes.
We walk slowly towards the bridge. Along the way I stop and turn around. I want to take a photograph of the train station, as the light is hitting it well. I begin to frame the picture in my lens when I hear from behind me “Bastards!” I spin and look and the ten year old is no where to be found. Instead my father has returned. He points to a telephone poll and shuffles away. I approach where Dad was pointing, and see scrawled on the side of the pole a freshly drawn swastika.
We are back in the car on the outskits of Baden. We have not talked much in the 45 minutes since we left Fahrafeld, both of us lost in our thoughts and reflections. Finally my father says “I hope you don’t mind but I don’t feel like visiting cemeteries today.” I reply that I don’t much feel like visiting cemeteries either but that I can’t remember who is buried here. He tells me that Pepi’s husband is interred here. I pause before I ask him the next question not knowing if this is a question to far, and then I say quietly “What happened to Pepi?
He replies “By the time we left in 1939 Pepi was too old to take care of herself anymore so she moved to an old age home in Vienna”his voice trails off a little bit and finishes with “We had to leave her there.” I say nothing more. I know what the Nazi’s did to old and infirm jews. They were the first to go into the ovens.
Outside our hotel windows we can hear the sounds of a group of people walking along the street. They are a little drunk and speaking too loudly and although I can not understand a word they are saying I can tell that they have had a good time this evening. I roll over and turn off the light and for a while just lay on back and hear the party goes recede into the distance.
I hear my father roll over and he says ““You know Paul, it really got to me today at Fahrafeld. It is gone for good….never to come back.” I can think of nothing to say to comfort him or the ten year old boy I had met early that day so I just rub his back until we both fall asleep.