A Glance Back: Christmas 2020

A Kiwi acquaintance likes to say that summer cookouts make her think of Christmas. Well, I can’t claim that same association — but here it is August and I am thinking about Christmas. Guess that means I’m just that behind on blogging!

Way back last September I booked (incredibly cheap) tickets from Austria to the U.S. for Christmas, in hopes that Covid might be more or less “over” by then. (What optimism!) Initially, I halfway deluded myself that I wasn’t going to stress about whether the trip would be possible or not. Celebrating the holidays in Vienna instead of with family would also be nice, right? And, after all, the airlines were promising full reimbursements for canceled trips, no questions asked.

However, as the date of departure approached (and both departure date and airport of arrival shifted, due to airline-initiated cancelations), I had to admit to myself that my heart was set on spending the holidays with Hannah and Peter. So, when I developed very strange throat issues a week or so before I was to fly, I became intensely anxious. (It seemed like any symptom could be Covid, which would keep you off a plane. But no, apparently it wasn’t that – and also wasn’t major thyroid issues, which the doctor has me scurrying to get tested before being gone for a month.)

In the end, after all the worry about whether the flight would really take off and whether I would really be on it, it did and I was. And once past all the pre-boarding stress, flying felt rather normal. Sure they’d added a few lines to the safety measures spiel, and we were all wearing masks (except when we weren’t: the irony of most of us gladly relinquishing our masks to enjoy dinner still amuses me). But maybe it just felt “normal” because hurtling through the stratosphere while watching a string of movies and going backward in time (traveling west, that is!) is already weird enough!

Arriving in Philly, I discovered that the health declaration form I’d filled out on the plane was apparently of no interest to anyone — unless I deemed it to hold souvenir value (I decided it didn’t).

I also discovered a WhatsApp message from Hannah, clarifying who was picking me up from the airport. I should start by backing up to say that a few days prior Peter had come down with a “cold” or “sinus infection,” which proceeded to suspiciously rob him of his sense of taste and smell; so I was already prepared to spend a couple days at his sister Margrethe’s place, in case he tested positive for Covid and they were quarantining. But, I wasn’t quite expecting Hannah’s message at the airport, apologetically explaining that, well, she didn’t feel so good that day…. Turns out they both had Covid — mercifully, mild cases.

As disappointing as the change in plans was, I was so thankful to be greeted with a big hug by Margrethe, and she proceeded to host me at her place in the most gracious manner possible for the next week plus. Since Hannah and Peter felt more like they had a cold rather than something more threatening, I admit that we did some just-squeaking-by-the-letter-of-the-law quarantine maneuvers, featuring visiting through the front door at their place or Margrethe’s back door. In our defense, it was hard to be in neighboring towns, rather than on different continents, and not be allowed to be in the same room!

That first week or so turned out to be a great chance to get better acquainted with my brother-in-law’s sister — or should I say my sister’s sister-in-law? Both terms are rather cumbersome, so I am happy to report that in this case the German language (or at least Austrian dialect) offers a shorter word for something than English does, and you can colloquially refer to your sister’s sister-in-law as your “Schwippschwägerin.” (Admittedly, also a bit of a mouthful.)

At first, we had to sort of feel each other out about shared space, meals, etc., but we conveniently share a love for coffee, for long morning chats over said coffee while standing in the kitchen, for enormous amounts of popcorn with a movie, for quiet to do our own thing (for me, reading and doing a bit of work for university), for cooking creatively…. I guess the food theme is kind of obvious, but Margrethe is a great cook (it seems to run in the family), and we had a lot of good conversation in and around Indian butter chicken and zucchini soup in homemade bread bowls, and (did I already mention?) mugs of coffee.

For Christmas Eve, I joined Peter’s two sisters and their dad for a very low-key celebration — everyone was more than willing to postpone the “real” Christmas celebration till the rest of the family could be there. But we still enjoyed a festive evening, and I felt very grateful to be welcomed in so warmly!

Christmas Day Margrethe made the two of us French toast for breakfast, and I spent a lot of time reading by the Christmas tree. Hannah and Peter dropped by for a through-the-closed-back-door visit (where we all tried hard to be cheerful and make the most of the situation), and I ate yummy Indian leftovers for dinner. Margrethe returned from her dad’s in time for us to enjoy watching a movie together. Probably the strangest 25 December I have every had — at least rivaling Christmas 2005, when we Holders were in New Zealand for a summertime Christmas with our aunt and uncle and cousins there.

Finally, the day after Christmas, Hannah and Peter were both finished with their quarantine, and I got to step inside their front door! When I was there last, it was still a massive pre-move project — in Summer 2019 we spent many (happy!) hours painting walls and ceilings. So, one of the first things I had to do upon arriving at Christmastime was to take a grand tour — appreciating the artistic style with which they have together crafted a home from the attic on down! Quite the show-and-tell session. And then the evening proceeded with decorating the Christmas tree together (yes, on 26 December!) while listening to Christmas music and grazing on a splendid charcuterie and opening our Christmas stockings and ending up rather giddy with laughter.

Sunday started off with the oddly named “Dutch baby” for breakfast (half the fun is watching it rise magically in the oven).

Then we headed off to church (rather a novel experience for me, since we were only having livestream services at the time at my church in Vienna), followed by a leisurely afternoon with Peter’s sisters and dad. Again good food, plus a fire in the fireplace, and the pleasure of being able to gather after the strange semi-isolation of the preceding days.

Monday Peter and Hannah and I determined was our “Christmas Day.” We started off with the Holder traditional breakfast, followed by opening gifts.

The best gift was Hannah’s replicating Mom’s loose-leaf recipe collection — complete with a less-faded version of Mom’s cloth-covered binder (and the revised edition adorned with Hannah’s embroidery) and copies of dozens upon dozens of recipes Mom either cut from magazines or copied from friends or received as part of a family letter or otherwise collected over 35-plus years of cooking for the family.

After opening gifts, the traditional Christmas Day trajectory took a novel turn: Instead of a big company dinner in the afternoon, the three of us spent the rest of the day taking a beautiful country drive, spontaneously stopping for ice cream, and sharing what was, growing up, our favorite birthday dinner menu.

The following days I won’t try to describe is great detail. But common themes were games (Hand and Foot, Zilch, Ingenious, Dutch Blitz), walks (in town and on nearby rail trails), a whole array of delightful meals and interesting drinks (whipped coffee, anyone?), visits with friends from the neighborhood or from church (it’s so nice to like your sibling’s friends!), snatches of work and study (one morning involving getting up for an online lecture at 3:30 a.m. EST!), movie nights, and a trip to the festively decorated Longwood Gardens.

Another highlight was the multiple country drives we took together (Amish farms, buggies, bald eagles, miniature horses, big skies).

New Year’s Eve we gathered with Peter’s side of the family, including his brother and family in from D.C., for a combined Christmas and New Year’s celebration. The family’s Scandinavian roots became freshly apparent by the amount of pickled fish that appeared on the table — oddly tasty, but very foreign to the Holder palate! Definitely also not a Holder tradition — but seems like it wouldn’t be so bad to institute — were the midnight ice cream sundaes.

The following weekend my former flatmate in Vienna drove up from D.C. for a visit. Jessica is an avid conversationalist, game-player, and partaker in outdoor activities. So, we did some exploring of the area together, including a walk near the Susquehanna River. It was also quite handy to have a fourth person for the team version of Hand and Foot!

…Back in the fall, I had booked plane tickets for a whole month’s visit, the plan being to stay just long enough to be able to celebrate Hannah’s birthday on 14 January. (The last time we celebrated a birthday together would have been hers in 2012.) Peter and I had a lot of fun planning and executed surprises that lasted all day!

For starters, I got up early to make a three-course breakfast: 1) yogurt parfait with (H and P’s homemade) tomato preserves and topped with caramel-pecan crisps, followed by 2) mini sweet potato and bacon quiches, and ending with 3) lemon-blueberry gingersnap tartlets.

Afterwards, Hannah and I attended a C. S. Lewis reading club she has been part of for quite some time — a diverse group of women, ranging in age from 30-something to around 80, and coming from quite a spectrum of Christian backgrounds. It was great to be able to meet those attending that day and to be able to picture the group and discussion style.

In the afternoon, H and P and I enjoyed some frisbee-playing in a nearby park, as well as multiple rounds of Ingenious (nice when the birthday gift is an instant success).

In the evening, we enjoyed take-out from a favorite Nepalese restaurant in Lancaster, followed by the surprise of their pastor and his wife showing up for dessert and conversation and laughter!

Well, all trips do come to an end at some point. In this case, British Airways canceled my flight, so I rebooked with another airline and stayed an extra week. The last days were pretty low-key, partly because we were waiting to see if I had caught Covid from the friends who came for Peter’s signature New Year Day’s pork and sauerkraut. Thankfully not, and I headed back across the Atlantic on the emptiest flight I’d ever seen. (Only in the middle of a pandemic can you find affordable, one-way, non-stop tickets from Newark to Vienna, get from baggage drop-off and through security in less than 20 minutes, and have only one other passenger sharing a row of seven seats.)

Having arrived in my tale back in Vienna, I’ll conclude for now!

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This Old House

Today (meaning, when I started the draft of this post on 26 October) we signed the sale of our childhood home.

Strange — especially since Hannah was signing for both of us, though I was included via phone from 4,836 miles away (or at least that is the number you get when you google “How many miles is it from Vienna to Knoxville”).

Good — because we are so happy about the buyers . . . a young couple who cherish old things and are excited (?!) about upkeep of an old house. Moreover, like our parents who bought the house 37 years ago, they look forward to practicing hospitality, tending their part of the garden and enjoying the fruit of their hands, delighting in children’s laughter wafting in from the big yard, and investing their time and energy for the gospel, whether locally or across the globe.

Sad — not really yet, but probably later. Less sad because I suppose I can invite myself over for coffee some time.

It seems like the right day to try to put down on paper some of what this little corner of Tennessee means to me. What comes to mind are some of the smells and sounds of home and what the house and yard contain of wealth than can’t be lost when the physical property passes on to new owners.

Smells — Dad mowing the lawn. Man, I love that smell of fresh-cut grass, with maybe just a tinge of fumes from the mower mixed in. The summer evenings, still and peaceful but still plenty hot and humid, and the mingling sound and scent of Dad finishing off the lawn before dusk settles.

Other smells — countless kitchen aromas. That kitchen — the center of almost any home, and most definitely the best room of our house. If Mom was cooking or baking, there was a very big chance that I, or both Hannah and I, were at her elbow, eager to stir and taste what was being concocted. Who doesn’t love the smell of onions sautéing, promising any of dozens of potential dinners within the next hour or so? Or the remarkable once-a-year olfactory treat of an apple pie or a blackberry pie in the oven? Or the comfortingly familiar scent of Sunday night popcorn? Or the pungent odor of parmesan sprinkled across the birthday-dinner turkey-tetrazzini, the kind of smell you might not like if you didn’t know it was cheese?

Sounds — Well, there was the inescapable volume of the solid old upright piano, which saw us from “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to Brahms or Beethoven. (How many afternoons did Mom sit next to the piano writing letters and taking in the music — or other times listening from the kitchen and calling out reminders to slow down or play more accurately?!) Or the beloved record player — Handel’s Messiah or Vaughan Williams’ Hodie and other Christmas favorites that accompanied tree decorating and the whole Christmas season — or the less frequently played Bob Dillan or (totally random) synthesizer Bach. And the muted roar of college football, an acquired taste we Holder women never acquired (though Hannah and I might now be moved by it with a certain nostalgia). And the tones of East Tennessee itself — cicadas and crickets winding up their nightly music boxes, while lightning bugs danced in the humid July air. We liked to watch the fireflies from our beds, the shades raised enough to invite in whatever summer night breeze just might be stirring outside. Probably the best sound of my childhood was the sound of books being read aloud. I remember Dad sitting down with us on the couch to introduce us to Hobbits. Much of the reading, though, happened in the kitchen, with Mom reading while we girls ate lunch during home schooling years or while we washed dishes in the evenings. Together we took in Charles Dickens and Philip Yancey, the Mitford series and Moby Dick (ugh), spellbinding historical biography (Endurance) and classic children’s literature like The Wind in the Willows — oh how Toad made us laugh!

Smells, tastes, sounds. Spaces. For starters, the dining room — the furniture Mom loved, fitting just so and offering a sort of elegance that suited her unique mix of frugal and proper. The scene of countless meals with guests, usually followed by a game (dominoes, Pictionary, the poem game, zilch), dessert always delayed till we had supposedly worked up a bit more appetite. Most days, though, the table was where Mom read the Bible and prayed in the morning and where she often sat to write letters.

Dad had his own prayer closet — literally. Because the kitchen had enough storage space, Dad made the pantry his “study,” a miniscule space stuffed with desk, stool, shelves, books, papers, family pictures. Countless mornings he was cloistered there before the rest of us were awake — a narrow beam of light escaping from the crack between door and doorframe or a squeak of his chair indicating he hadn’t left for work yet.

Back to the dining room for a moment: Hannah and I liked that room partly because of the heating register there — somehow that register was warmer than the others, or at least it was about the only one set in a carpeted floor. As little (and not so little) kids, we liked to sit right next to the register, intermittent blasts of hot air billowing up under old-fashioned flannel night gowns or beloved quilts. Both of us still sing the praises of the heat produced by the kerosene furnace of our early years, which was more satisfyingly warm than that produced by the gas furnace to follow.

Of course, there aren’t just warm, cozy memories of the place, but sad things, too — to deny it would be to paint the wrong picture. But raised voices, out-and-out arguments, and patterns of misunderstanding hardly invite nearer description. There were also lots of apologies and a sizeable portion of forbearance — and lots and lots of laughter. Oh man, for another of those volleys of hysterical laughter with Mom and Hannah after supper, the three of us still sitting around the dinner table and Dad already off to watch the nightly news. Something would get us going, and then Dad would appear, curious and slightly bewildered by what could have come over us in the space of just a few minutes. We couldn’t really explain.

Moving outside, more memories show up, clamoring for recognition. There’s the view out the front door — the hazy parade of the Smoky Mountains, the nearer green hills, the fog painting the river’s course — oh, the many beautiful sunrises we’ve enjoyed from that vantage point. In the side yard on the bedroom side, there’s the strapping tulip popular tree Dad planted when I was in the fourth grade, it’s upper branches now far above the roofline. On the same side of the house, the old pecan tree — some years not a nut to be found, or then again one year a bumper crop — same with the peach trees on the driveway side.

In the backyard, the veggie garden and old smoke house. For a number of years a treehouse — and, even better — a rope bridge leading to it from the now deceased oak.

Speaking of trees, the sycamore that shaded the western side of the house so many years is worth mentioning not only for its shade and the copious quantity of leaves it let fall this time of year, but also for the big rope swing Dad hung from it. That same tree, or the neighboring maples, supplied with their shallow roots one of the hillbilly-golf features of our croquet lawns — “lawns” being a euphemism for the sloping, bumpy, or downright steep courts where we honed our skills. How many games did Dad and Hannah and I play — punctuated by yells and howls of delight and dismay! I must say, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Hannah and I are competitive, having Ron Holder, the soul of competition (and good sportsmanship), for our dad!

Other sports tended to spill into the neighbors’ even bigger yard. Frisby and baseball were favorites — I still remember the time Dad told us he’d take us to Disney World if we could catch his next fly ball. I’m not a good catch, but I caught the ball. We didn’t make it to Disney (which I don’t regret), but eventually we tasted real rollercoasters on a summer vacation up the East Coast — Dad and our uncle promptly getting motion sickness and Hannah and I rather enjoying the thrill and not one bit queasy.

Back to trees, the same old sycamore served as a popular “fairy house” site. We loved to gather twigs and moss to build miniature houses, one imaginative past time among many in a childhood blissfully free of digital dependence and ignorant of the very existence of cell phones.

When I think about growing up and doing it in the same house since age one, I think especially of routine, of ordinary days, of a certain predictability. Sometimes that bred a bit of boredom and plenty of wishful imagining of what life might be like some day. I remember playing in the backyard, hearing and watching a plane high overhead, thinking how amazing it must be to fly. Would I ever get to be in an airplane myself? Two to three decades later, I feel a reverse longing for the simplicity of that childhood moment every time an otherwise quiet summer day is interrupted by the distant hum of an airplane.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts our parents gave us was to grow up with the stability of quiet routines. For that I’m grateful.

* * *

Hannah’s addendum:

Smells. Turkey coming out of the oven while international guests watched a bird being carved for the first time. So many batches of homemade bread. Christmas baking. Curry dishes. All those amazing aromas you mention. And the terrible, mysterious smell that eluded us for years and turned out to be an old light fixture. 

Sights. The sunlight coming in the kitchen windows all afternoon and evening and the leafy shadows on the kitchen wall. Water rushing down the driveway in a huge storm. The pattern of Christmas lights shining through cedar needles onto the ceiling in an otherwise dark room as we ate Christmas cookies by candlelight and listened to the Glen Ellen children’s choir and organ after decorating the tree as a family. 

Sounds. A record of Pachelbel’s Canon in D played as we went to bed. Mom listening for years to Elisabeth Eliot’s short daily radio broadcast (and doing a few stretches and exercises while she listened). Laughing with our family and Aunt Renie over dictionary words zyzzyva and zarf. Popcorn popping every Sunday night for a simple dinner with fruit and cheese. 

Assorted. So many meals of garden vegetables after we helped Dad plant and Mom harvest. Pretend tea parties with doll dishes in the sunroom before the room turned into storage. Using the coffee table both as a slide (with one end propped up on the couch) and as a shuffle board court; Mom let us draw the scoring triangles on the table with crayon and leave it like that for weeks! Many jigsaw puzzles occupying the dining room table over Christmas break. Two person games in the hallway that involved balls, rackets, and closing all the doors. Hide and seek in the dark with Dad. Three o’clock coffee with Mom whenever we were home to join her. So many thousands of laps walked or run or cycled around the block. Joining Dad on the roof several times. Playing on our ladder swing set and sheet metal slide that was an accident and tetanus waiting to happen. The sandbox in the smokehouse and the various horses we kept; several of the latter got out, including a pony, a lively colt, and a Clydesdale. 

 

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The Great Outdoors

I always feel like summer starts late in Austria. For one thing, the university term wraps up at the end of June or beginning of July. This year, the weather also couldn’t make up it’s mind. And to top it all off, even if I don’t necessarily pine for every American holiday, I spent July 4th as my last day in quarantine (after a friend, together with whom I’d spent considerable time helping a mutual friend move, ended up testing positive for Covid, which landed a couple of us stuck at home for a while). On the evening of Independence Day, I sat on my wide windowsill — as close as I was allowed to get to the outdoors — sipping a glass of celebratory wine in anticipation of my own personal “independence” from quarantine the next morning.

Having become quite enamored with cycling in the previous months, I spent my first day of freedom, and in some sense the first day of summer, cycling well over 50 kilometers — first to drop by friends’ place on the outskirts of town, then peddling further upriver along the Danube, enjoying a funny little ferry (really, a glorified raft) across the river, cycling downstream on the other bank and then along the long island, stopping for a much-needed dip in the river, and showing up (still quite damp) for a “house church” service mid-afternoon. Dinner at a friend’s flat rounded out one great day.

Vorarlberg and Tirol

Mid-July I headed west, on a now oft-traveled route to the furthest stretch of Austria — the province of Vorarlberg borders Germany, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, and Italy. Koni (a friend from church) and I arrived by train just as a rain front was due to roll in. Our lovely hostess Rebecca (whom we know from her few years in Vienna) figured we could outwit the weather and head the next day to Italy, where the sun was shining. This turned out to be an excellent plan, and once across the pass (or rather, through the tunnels) and into Switzerland, the skies cleared.

We spent a good portion of the day lounging along an idyllic tumbling stream. Hot sunshine, cold water. The foreground full of sun reflecting on water and stone, the background — clear sky and steep green hillsides and small stone houses exquisitely wedged into the hills — so motionless and picturesque as if a mirage out of some other time and plane.

When we were sufficiently saturated with sun, we continued our drive, now along the northern part of Lage Maggiori, Italy’s second biggest lake, which covers over 200 square kilometers.

We stayed two nights outside a sleepy village above the lake. Not surprisingly, tourism was down this season. Although there were some regulations about wearing masks in any shops, otherwise things seemed pretty normal.

            

We enjoyed the lake, especially attempting a stand-up paddle board, did some wishful thinking about the sailboats in the harbor, and enjoyed pasta and pizza.    

Back in Vorarlberg, it was special to join Rebecca’s church on Sunday — the first really official church service I’d been to since March.

Monday featured our one big hike of the week — the Drei Schwester (“Three Sisters”). I like the sort of hike where you can see your goal repeatedly from along the trail, each time appearing somewhat closer.

The final ascent was exciting or scary or both. Besides some cables to offer assurance, there were two ladders and a bit of scrambling. (Notice the funny wooden “stairs.”) On top, we had a glimpse of four countries (Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Lichtenstein), plus mountains in every direction, except out over the Bodensee (Lake Constance).       

The rest of time in the far western reaches of Austria was spent in a very relaxed fashion — walking with Rebecca’s dog, drinking tea, lounging in hammock. And no trip to Vorarlberg would be complete without some good strong cheese!    

Then it was time to head back east; I stopped for a few days near Innsbruck to visit good friends there, and I was joined by my former flatmate Rachel. It was a relaxed long weekend, with good conversations, taking in the beauty of the surrounding landscape and enjoying the antics of an adorable two-year-old.

Gesäuse Nationalpark

In August I spent a week with hiking buddy Stefanie in a national park in Styria (southeastern Austria). It was a different experience than our Tirolean adventures — first, most of the huts were very sparsely populated (largely due to coronavirus restrictions) and, second, we didn’t stay at the relatively high elevation of one of the Höhenwege (“high ways”) but instead descended every day to what felt like the valley floor before tromping back up to our next hut. This level of up and down (with the “down” coming at the start of the day and the “up” when we were more tired) was pretty demotivating. But in the process, we were blessed with incredible views and rewarded with satisfyingly sore muscles.

Day 1: Wien → Mödlingerhütte

Stefanie and I met at Vienna’s main train station about 6:15 a.m. and were soon on our way — even if, thanks to a train delay, we actually didn’t get to the trailhead till around 11 a.m. The damp air and soggy earth told us we had narrowly missed a series of rainy days, which was just fine with us. By mid-afternoon we reached a decision point — turn right, losing a good bit of elevation, to follow a long and undulating path to our first hut, or turn left, heading up and over two peaks before meeting back up with trail option one?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I was definitely excited about option two, even if slightly concerned that the day was progressing faster than we were. Also, neither of us was quite sure what we’d find at the second peak in terms of a short Klettersteig (via ferrata), but I was pretty optimistic, based on previous shared experiences. After some discussion, we did indeed head left and up — after I agreed that we could retrace our steps if from the first peak the path ahead looked too alarming.

Arriving at the first, lower peak, all I could see was the tantalizing prospect of how the trail continued — beckoning along a zigzagging line to the next peak and then coasting across the shoulder of the mountain and disappearing up the valley.

It took a lot of faith to accept that my hiking buddy saw things pretty differently and that the most loving thing to do was to retrace our steps to the trail divide and then continue down, down, down (maybe 750 vertical meters total) to where the lower trail eventually started to re-ascend. As overblown as it might sound, the thing that got me moving downhill was John 15:13 playing over and over like a broken record inside my head.

After the descent, we still had a loooonnng way yet to go — plodding up and down over successive hills while the afternoon waned and dusk gathered. Just before 9:00 p.m., Stefanie got our her headlamp to light the last ten minutes of our way, and then we finally cleared a final strip of forest to see our hut waiting, light shining from the windows as if it were Tom Bombadil’s house and we were footsore hobbits. (To be fair, we probably wouldn’t have gotten there much sooner by the up-and-over route.)

We apparently looked as worn out as we felt — the Hüttenwirtin (hut hostess) served us bitter but warming Zirpenschnaps (pine schnapps) on-the-house.

Day 2: Mödlingerhütte to Hesshütte

We woke up with big appetites, which thankfully the kitchen crew had anticipated! It was fun to see the hut in daylight before we headed out.

The trail led us back down “into town” — and we took advantage of it to refuel for the trek up.

The next stretch of trail was busy — a popular day hiking area and the route to the one big hut of our tour. Above the initial ascent, the landscape spread out like a verdant carpet before leading us to our hut, where we enjoyed some good Austrian fare before retiring to bed; the only disadvantage to the accommodations were the snorers.

Day 3: Hesshütte → Ennstalerhütte 

Day 3 started with views of the sunlight illuminating a neighboring peak and with  breakfast porridge on the lodge deck. Our trail took us up and over a small pass. On the way up, we surprised a Gämse (chamois) out for his breakfast, and on the way down, we ended up chatting with a herdsman out for his morning rounds.

Carrying on, we descended in and out of shade along a mountain brook, covered as fast as possible a stint along a valley road, and then headed back up. The afternoon proved to be more unpleasant than I thought possible on an Austrian hiking trail. After baking in the hot sun along a forest road, our path cut steeper uphill through the woods and grasses. But, it was apparently anything but a popular route and looked far more like a paradise for ticks than a proper path. With the August sun beating down, it was truly miserable, and before we reached the hut, I felt like I was using my hiking polls more than my legs to keep myself going!

However, the less than ideal trail led to an idyllic hut. Seated at a flower-adorned picnic table and enjoying a delicious meal with friendly fellow hikers, the frustration and weariness of the day subsided and gave way to delight in the drama of sunset unfolding before us. We lingered till the stars came out and the Milky Way dazzled.

Day 4: Ennstalerhütte → Haindlkarhütte

The next morning started early, as a handful of folks decided it would be fun to see the sunrise from the nearest peak. By 4:30ish we were on the trail. The Milky Way had swung 90 degrees while we slept, and we added out own feeble dots of lights till the light of day began to arrive. We weren’t the only ones already up — we surprised three Gämsen, silhouetted against the still-dark sky, above them Venus making a last brilliant stand against the coming day.

Arriving at an overlook just below the peak, we were greeted by the glory of pre-dawn, the whole eastern horizon a stripe of read, orange, and yellow above the dark mountains and light gray fog that had settled in the intervening valleys.

 

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy” (from Psalm 19). 

From the peak, we watched the sunrise — marveling how fast it rose, exclaiming over how it tinged the mountain sides pink…

and pointing out the remarkable shadow the mountain we stood on cast west.   Back at the hut, we enjoyed a well-earned breakfast and headed down again, into a small town, before a short hike up to our next hut. Thankfully, it wasn’t far, as rain moved in and we arrived rather damp — but before the downpour that followed. At the hut, we met up with another friend, Feli, who joined us for the remainder of the week.

It was kind of an odd evening in the hut — there was only one other guest, plus the three hut host/hostesses. We ate delightful Kaspresknödelsuppe (cheese dumpling soup — really quite splendid), while outside the clouds played hide-and-seek with the surrounding mountain walls.

Day 5: Haindlkarhütte → Admonter Haus

The next morning Feli and I did a bit of exploring, following a dry rainwater riverbed. Then Stefanie and Feli headed back down the same trail we’d come up the day before, and I opted for the slightly longer alternate route. There had been a landslide some weeks previously, and I was curious to see what the area looked like afterwards. Because I was about the only one on the trail, I sang a few hymns (after all, it was Sunday morning) and enjoyed going at my own pace, including a bit of “running” down the scree slopes.

The next jaunt started too far from where our descending trails ended, so we took a “mountain taxi” to the next trailhead. Arriving at the hut late afternoon, I still had a lot of energy — or maybe just the wonderful views made me think I did! So, while the others stayed in the cozy hut near the woodstove, I took two further jaunts. 

What amazing views! Layers of constantly changing clouds, with fog/cloud rising from below and shafts of sunlight illuminating fields and softly diffused over distant peaks — along with contrasting swaths of fathomless blue sky and layers of unshakable mountains. 

Back at the hut, we enjoyed bowls of lentils (the one menu option!), which went well with chocolate-banana cake before bed. Again, we were a small crew — just six guests at the hut.

Day 6: Admonter Haus → Hofalm

We awoke inside a cloud of fog, which didn’t bode particularly well for hiking weather. For the first part of the day, the rain held off, and the close clouds and damp forest became its own insular world of white fog, soft forest browns, and intense green.

After another jaunt through town, we stopped under an old oak for lunch, before heading up — as the rain started. I can’t say the rain made for a very pleasant journey, but the skies did eventually start to clear and we made it to our hut remarkably dry.

Our last evening was rather subdued — everyone was tired. I again stayed up later than the others, retreating into a favorite book.

Day 7: Hofalm → Wien

Our last day was uneventful — retracing part of our path from the day before, stopping at another hut, then making out way over a small pass (with intriguing views of the peak at hand — but off-limits due to needing Klettersteig equipment) and then down towards “civilization,” though this time with the train station in view, rather than another hut up the next mountain.

A full week — full of kilometers covered and elevation gained and lost, full of memories shared with friends. Wonderfully empty of phone calls and emails, replaced instead by the pleasure of physical exertion and the beauties of Creation.

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Changing Pace, Staying in Place (sort of)

The last post was an attempt to catch up on before-coronavirus happenings. But since it’s been five plus months since Austria’s lockdown and now many weeks since things started opening back up here, a lot more catching up is in order. My hope in this post is to look back over the spring with an eye to all the good things that it included and with special attention to the humorous. Thus, it is a personal, positive, and a-political post. 🙂

Lockdown

In the flurry of the Austrian government’s proactive approach to dealing with the corona crisis (not wanting to repeat the scenario playing out for our southern neighbors in Italy), everything shifted gears suddenly mid-March. For me, that meant picking up my laptop from the university to take up official “home office,” dropping the piano music I was practicing for a concert the following weekend, having rehearsals canceled for choir performances of St. John’s Passion, and spending lots of time on the phone with friends near and far as we all tried to get our heads around the abrupt halt to normal life.

At a personal level, I found lockdown rather . . . (dare I admit it?) wonderful. The longing for quiet, stillness, cessation of social expectations, etc., had been building for many months, yet seemed impossible to address without defaulting on obligations or missing out on good things. Of course, I didn’t expect the interruption of “normal” to be more or less universally applied!

The freedom to work from home was a huge gift — providing both ongoing income and a healthy routine. Being someone who enjoys being at home and is used to creating my own structure, the transition was quite easy. The days filled up quickly, with mornings usually given to editing work and afternoons and evenings spent with work for church, exercise, online meetings, phone calls, and time for quiet endeavors, reading, baking, etc., what with all the usual church and social activities canceled.

         Lockdown rules here in Austria weren’t stringent regarding freedom to be outdoors for exercise, which meant I was outside a lot, enjoying ambling walks, watching spring unfold with a more attentive and unhurried appreciation than in many other years, and doing a fare amount of cycling. To thoroughly amend a popular maxim: “Outside a book, a bike is this woman’s best friend.”Speaking of books, during lockdown I read, skimmed, re-read, began, finished, etc., a number of books, including a collection of Tolkien’s letters (slow-going, but I’m enjoying a better idea of the author behind my favorite story), The Lord of the Rings (just what one needs for quiet evenings alone!), UnChristian (slightly dated and not exactly spellbinding, albeit offering some insights on American pop culture and Christianity), Myth and the Christian Nation (for a book review for a university class — a book I can best describe as like second-hand smoke: unpleasant in small doses and potentially lethal in larger ones), Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy (a book on lament), Center Church (Tim Keller’s volume on church planting), and Surprised by Hope (true to its title).

Reading was a real highlight of lockdown — way more appealing than practicing the piano, for some reason. However, as shops started to re-open, I excitedly made my first “non-necessity” purchase — Ravel’s trio for piano, violin, and cello. Currently, it’s my favorite piece of chamber music.

Most music-making for an audience has been on hold. However, mid-May, I attended a small outdoor concert a friend was putting on for his neighbors — largely musical-genre, though I accompanied him for a couple German Lieder. Musically speaking, we were challenged by the evening breeze blowing my sheet music, the limitations of keyboard and sound system, and the noise of traffic going by. But, as the finale to a series of “window concerts” he’d put together over the previous months, the music was well-received by friendly neighbors and curious passersby.

…Although living alone was given new meaning during the lockdown, I was spared being particularly lonely. Besides lots of spontaneous phone calls, I found a new tradition developing of cherished Sunday afternoon coffee dates over video chat my old roommate, now in D.C. Locally, I enjoyed “visiting” friends by cycling or jogging by and chatting from the street up to their window. Or I met up with one or maybe two friends in the park or for a walk. What was really missing was being in each other’s homes — and hugs.

Staying in Touch

As odd as it sounds, perhaps the most shocking moment of lockdown was discovering the fact that international postal services had been interrupted. Letter in hand to a friend Stateside, I tromped merrily over to the post office one day, only to learn that no regular airmail could be delivered to the U.S. Stunned, I wandered outside and — as one does in our modern age — immediately communicated my consternation to Hannah and Peter via Whatasapp. A number of days later, when I again tried to post the letter, I got the same answer. I don’t know how many weeks it actually lasted till there were enough planes flying again to take regular mail across the Atlantic, but it was a far cry from the inofficial creed of the U.S. postal service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Easter

What a strange Easter Sunday — the highest point of the Church year, but church buildings empty around the world. Nonetheless, I found it to be one of the more special Easters I can remember. Slightly bending the rules, I got up early to meet two friends in a park for our own “sunrise service.” It was low-key in the extreme, but a beautiful, crisp morning under a clear sky and accompanied by bird song. We sang “Thine Be the Glory” and had an impromptu reading from John’s Resurrection account, followed by a mini Easter “brunch” of the hot cross buns I’d baked.

Back home, I enjoyed a second breakfast (I guess I was pretending to be a hobbit), accompanied by a favorite Easter reading from Surprised by Hope. I found myself laughing hard as I read — a joviality that suited the festive nature of the day!

We had a recorded Easter Sunday service online, which was quite good. Afterwards, I took a long bike ride, in part along the Danube, and later shared a “cocktail hour” with Hannah and Peter over a video call, followed by a delicious dinner. (I’ve never cooked such a nice meal just for myself!) Then I stayed up ridiculously late watching episodes 2-7 (i.e., basically the whole season) of The Chosen, a retelling of the life of Christ that is surprisingly fresh, winsome, and even funny. What a great day!

…Most other Sundays are a whole lot more low-key! We’ve had online services for about five months now, though at some point we started meeting in small “house church” groups. For many of us in the congregation, this has proved to be a wonderful opportunity to connect with different people or at deeper level than might be possible on an average Sunday. We’re now also meeting once a month in person, with lots of precautions — while waiting for the renovations of our new building to commence.

The New Mode

Everyone talks about the “new normal.” But rather than intending to close by philosophizing on the new modus operandi, I instead was to close with a bit of light-hearted reflection on the the neue Mode (German for “new fashion”). Namely, I found myself wondering if ten years from now, fashion designers are going to draw inspiration from the corona virus masks. I mean, just take a stroll around town and observe the remarkable diversity, creativity, and oddity of your fellow man!

First there’s the style question: Sleek and monotone? Bright and cheerful? Oddly patterned (perhaps upside-down dog print, or cacti)? Obviously homemade? Readily disposable?

But then there’s how you wear (or don’t wear) your mask: Across a bald scalp? Dangling from the elbow? Dangling from one ear? Hanging from a dress shirt button? And there’s the “low-ride” look — mask hanging just under the nose. Or the “at-the-ready” model — paper medical mask, with the elastic band drawing it tight under the chin. Remarkably, with the right outfit, this version looks like a new style accessory, offering a measure of convenience and a sort of subtle statement of social solidarity.

Masks: the “new normal” for public transport, grocery stores, etc. The new litter. A new standard of legalistic righteousness. (The low-riders are definitely missing the mark.) A new manner of self-expression, whether of practicality, particular caution, creativity, indifference, or adaptability.

Lest I accidentally tread out upon political sensitive waters, perhaps a bit of humor to finish off the topic:

Back in May, I joined a small gathering on a Sunday afternoon for an informal church service. We sat in a large circle around our hosts’ living room to watch and discuss a recorded sermon and to sing a couple of songs. We had all been requested to wear masks for the service, and I admit I felt pretty uncomfortable — being new to mask-wearing and also feeling pretty out of my element trying to lead the two hymns acapella, sitting on a couch, without optimum airflow. Thankfully, it was a forgiving bunch, and everyone was a good sport about it all.

After the service, our gracious hostess appeared from the kitchen with a platter of cupcakes, baked for someone’s birthday. The cupcakes were adorned with candles, and the birthday girl proceeded to do what birthday girls do: Blow them out. Then, to my intense and enduring amusement, we proceeded to take off our masks and, defying all cautionary logic, ate the cupcakes…. Happily, not only were the cupcakes tasty, but apparently the birthday girl was a specimen of good health.

On that note, I’ll sign off for now.

Coming up next: River, Lake, and Mountain

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B.C.

It’s been almost a year now since I headed Stateside last summer — so glad for that wonderful trip, especially considering how disrupted travel plans have been for countless individuals in recent months.

Now with the last assignment for the university semester handed in (virtually) last week, I’ll take this chance to step back in time to try to trace a few highlights of the fall, winter, and early spring.

Home and Office

When I returned to Vienna in September, I returned to lots of change. Not having been successful in finding a flat before summer travels, I found myself scouring fresh apartment ads while trying not to wear out my welcome at friends’ apartments. In the end, I stayed in six different homes of friends from church for a total of about 10 weeks. It was extremely stressful being in limbo — and at the same time a great gift to be able to get to know friends better and receive their eagerly offered hospitality.

As of December, I finally moved into my own flat — a quiet space with a combined living room/kitchen and a big bedroom, with high ceilings, creaky wood flooring, and tall windows letting in a lot of daylight. Little did I know that the following months would offer plenty of time to settle in, with home office/home learning/home everything just around the corner!

Also in the fall I found myself in a wonderful new work setting, providing quiet and a routine that were priceless in the midst of the housing search. After six or so years in four different school settings, last June I left my part-time job as an English teaching assistant in order to take on more translating and editing work in the University of Vienna’s Church History department. Although working as an independent contractor, I was given an office, first all to myself, then joined by a friendly Italian philologist. After the hubbub of middle and high school classrooms (however youthful and potentially pleasant), I’ve relished the quiet, the clearly defined tasks, and the greater engagement in a German-speaking context.

Besides the 10-15 hours a week at the university, I’ve carried on with my comparative religions studies and my admin assistant work at church. Our fall church retreat included well over 100 people this year — it was a full weekend, like always, included Bible talks, singing, evenings playing games and a “pub quiz” night, and a glimpse of the local countryside and a beautiful nearby monastery.

Holidays

Come Christmas, I was joined by my Uncle David and Aunt Renie from Phoenix, who had been in Poland for about 10 days and thought they’d take a “detour” to Vienna for the holidays! Their visit was a huge motivation to get settled in my new flat. In the process I discovered a new extreme sport known as washing windows. (Long story, but picture old-fashioned lower and upper windows, with both an inner and outer set. Then imagine discovering that the the upper, outer windows — at about head level when standing on the generously wide windowsill — didn’t open in or out, but rather lifted straight out of their frames. To wash them meant maneuvering the heavy panes between the inner and outer frames — being careful not to angle them all wrong, lest they somehow manage to crash to the street below!)

With my aunt and uncle in town, we filled the Christmas week with various festive and touristy activities — events with friends from church, Christmas markets (photo: D.T.), the musical instruments and ancient armor museum (photos: D.T.), and traditional Holder Christmas baking and a festive Christmas dinner.  And we played a good bit of Hand-and-Foot and Zilch, accompanied by plenty of Glühwein.

Perhaps the highlight for all three of us was a day trip over the border to the Czech Republic, to the town of Znojmo.    It’s so amazing how a short train ride can land you in another world or another time. We meandered through the quiet streets, taking in a cheese shop (photo: D.T.),colorful buildings picturesque in their mild state of decay, and an ancient church set grandly between the river below and the winter sky above.

For New Year’s, I traveled to Vorarlberg, the province farthest from Vienna but which I have visited more often than most of the others. My friend Rebecca welcomed me again for quiet days spent between the cozy comfort of home in small-town Austria and the refreshing air of the surrounding hills and mountains.

Highlights included getting up above the sea of fog for incredibly warm sunshine on New Year’s Day,   as well as a day skiing….

So, now I’m caught up to 2020 — more coming soon!

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A Marathon

Quiet. That’s what Vienna usually is on a Sunday morning, but in these strange times the quiet extends into the rest of the week. Necessary businesses have been kept open, but shopping areas, restaurants, tourist destinations, and many businesses are closed, not to mention the fact that other offices, international organizations, universities, and schools have shifted to home office and home learning.

In the past days of gorgeous spring weather, many have flooded to the city’s parks. But even there, playgrounds are largely corded off and people are pretty good at keeping the required 1-meter distance from anyone outside their immediate household. Police are patrolling the parks, which gives one the uncomfortable feeling that one might be breaking a rule even without realizing it. (Last Sunday I got reprimanded for riding my bike no-hands — surely that’s not really illegal!?) On the island park that stretches 20 kilometers along the Danube, there would be no hope of patrolling the whole area; but one is still within earshot of the loudspeaker repetitions of the current regulations — not German at its gentlest and finest, however necessary the announcements.

But, I suppose many of us may be feeling a surfeit of Coronavirus news these days. If you are one of those, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs before I get around to what I’ve been wanting to post for months!

…The current situation for me personally is not without much good. I am grateful to be able to work and study from home and am enough of an introvert to find the quiet like a glass of cool water after a long jog. I try to do my translating work for the university in the morning, get out for a long walk or bike ride or such and soak up the glory of spring sunshine, and tackle church admin tasks and university coursework — interrupted with plenty of phone calls to friends — into the evening. Then, at some point, I decide it’s time to read — what a glorious luxury to curl up on the couch and enjoy a good book! At the moment, two books — Center Church by Tim Keller and book three of Herr der Ringe.

Even if everyone who lives alone is going to be starved for a hug by the time this is all over, it’s such a blessing to be able to see friends — whether at the park (depending how you argue, it falls within the letter of the law to meet a friend outdoors and sit at opposite ends of a park bench) or even over GoogleMeet or from an apartment window. (Yesterday I took a jog by five friends’ flats and managed to catch three of them for a chat.)

That said, certainly one of the lessons we are all learning is that this is not just a personal experience, but also a dramatically corporate one. Our social distancing may not be chiefly about staying well ourselves, and hopefully it’s not just about sticking to the law of the land. It is about caring for others, about loving our neighbor. For those of us who identify as part of a church, we see anew that we are part of the Church universal. As the Church universal, i.e., throughout time, we are encouraged to look back at how believers have faced crises in other eras, how their Faith has borne them up in Hope and motivated them out in Love during times of plague or war that, at least for me, are unimaginable. As the Church universal, i.e., throughout space, we sense not only the global nature of our current predicament, but also practice reminding each other of the Savior who through his Resurrection has already laid the groundwork for making all things new, and who calls us to actively rest in him and to extend his love in whatever ways we can.

Well, meanwhile, it’s going to last a while. On Friday, the Austrian chancellor announced that the present regulations are valid through 13 April and then, if things have improved enough, life will start to return to (the new) normal. He called it a “marathon.”

And that brings me to another marathon. About a year ago, I watched a documentary film about a small group of elite runners who were attempting to break the 2-hour marathon barrier. The idea was to combine a team of experts – running coaches, nutritionists, pace setters, etc. – who would create the most ideal environment in which the world’s best long-distance runners would see if the human body and mind were capable of pulling off a marathon in under two hours. (In case you haven’t already done the math, that means running four-and-a-half-minute miles for 26.2 miles, or about 20kph.) They didn’t quite manage it in their first attempt (missing it by 25 seconds), but their effort was certainly inspiring.

Needless to say, it came as a very happy surprise last fall to learn that the next attempt was to be made in Vienna, with just a single runner (plus his team of alternating pace-setters). There was a lot of suspense building up in the days preceding the race – a range of dates were posted, but the final decision was made just days before, after the weather forecast assured planners of ideal conditions on 12 October. (For me, the date was special: Not only my mom’s birthday, but she once admitted that she had long dreamed of running the Boston Marathon some day. I confess I found this funny, as I knew Mom as fit but definitely not as a runner, but I have never forgotten the statement.) Not till Friday was the race-time posted, which added to the suspense.

Since it’s not news to anyone who follows the news that Eliud Kipchoge made history by running a marathon in 1:59:40.2 (or at least that was the unofficial time posted at the finish line), I can only say that it was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen firsthand.

The route was over familiar territory for anyone in Vienna – a huge percentage of the local population has covered more or less the same ground on foot or by bike (e.g., where I got reprimanded by the policeman last week), or by stroller or scooter or skateboard – many of us more times than we could count. But there’s nothing like joining hundreds of other people, all rooting for one man to do something no one has ever done, right there in front of you.

Having shown up to the start on my bike, as soon as the runners had breezed by, I joined several dozen other riders who had the same idea – jumping on our bikes in a state of reckless enthusiasm and racing in parallel with the runners less than a stone’s throw to our left. I certainly didn’t ride the whole time, but since the race route was primarily four repetitions of the entire length of the park and back, there was ample opportunity to cheer from the sidelines or race along the bike paths, dodging pedestrians and people on scooters – and hobby runners seeing how long they could keep pace – yelling out cheers and joining in the general exuberance. I’ve certainly never had more fun on a bike.

The event was impressive to me on multiple accounts. Of course, it was a unique sporting accomplishment, a world record being played out in real time meters away. Moreover, on a different level, it felt like a human reality was being enacted by the gathered crowd. I remember the pastor at my home church in Knoxville talking about people’s fundamental need to worship and how striking it was to see fans at a football stadium expressing the postures of worship on a Saturday, even if they proceeded to sit unmoved in church the next morning. Even as I found myself thoroughly caught up in the atmosphere surrounding the marathon, I was simultaneously analyzing the crowd, and myself as part of it.

Here we all were – everyone cheering for the same team, everyone’s hopes set on a single individual. Yes, because we wanted to see him cross the finish line before the clock read 2:00:00 and, yes, because we wanted to see him make history – and also, yes, because his feat represented something for us collectively. We wanted to have the best distance runner mankind could offer make a statement for all of us – about physical ability and especially about mental strength. We wanted to see perfection (albeit defined on our terms). And seeing it, we were compelled to praise it. People clapped and shouted, finding themselves united around a common goal, forgetting for a moment the troubles of the past week or the ones the day might yet hold. Faces reflected joy and amazement. In the present of marathon-running perfection, the response was (in some sense of the word) worship.

Of course, one could call it idolatry and be half right. I’m sure there were plenty in the crowd who had no thought of God and whose only creed was the race organizers’ motto “No human is limited.” But calling it that would also be half wrong. We were made with beauty and excellence, and we were made for beauty and excellence. We were made for a single-minded pursuit (of God), and we are drawn to those who display an unwavering dedication to a goal. The jubilation wasn’t wrong – but it made me wish for more lively joy and wonder in the Source of all perfection and beauty and in the Goal that truly satisfies. I think of the words from the book of Hebrew: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-2).

Well, here’s to running the current marathon well — meanwhile embracing the quiet, pursuing prayer, and, in a world buffeted by brokenness, turning afresh to the hope of our coming redemption. Most days, whether there’s Coronavirus in the air or not, I find the great challenge is remembering that Jesus has already crossed the finish line for us.

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France

The summer travels concluded in style, with a trip to southern France for the wedding of a dear friend I met my first semester studying in Vienna. Back in the fall of 2012, we found ourselves returning practice room keys to the porter at the same time one day and somehow started to chat. Both wishing for friends in a new place, we agreed we should meet up some time. She suggested the following Thursday; I had plans for a group of acquaintances to come cook/share Thanksgiving dinner at my place and invited Pauline to come along. Since then, we’ve shared many happy memories together – in Vienna, in Paris, and at her family’s summer home in Provence. Also, I think she’s my only Vienna friend who has ever visited my home in Knoxville….

I’d never been to a French wedding before this past summer, but I guess this occasion set the bar hopelessly high! Pauline’s family is wonderfully hospitable, and it’s hard not to have a good time when you are surrounded by quiet countryside, with vineyards and truffle oak and olive trees filling the view from the stone house that fits right into the earth-toned surroundings.

I arrived on Wednesday, Pauline’s dad picking me up at the closest train station in a little car that’s about as old as I am.

Thursday morning, a bicycle ride had been planned for all the American guests. (The groom is from the States, and he came with a fairly large contingent of family and friends.) At first, I was a bit skeptical of an e-bike  tour. But, in the end, what with rough terrain, enough hills, and jet lag, e-bikes were pretty brilliant. We had two guides, who didn’t stoop to e-bikes themselves and who were ready for the couple of flat tires we encountered.

The route took us through the countryside – dotted with vineyards and oak and olive trees – and through ancient towns – square church tours and rustic stone homes graced with lace-edged curtains.

     

The following morning, wedding preparations continued. (The civil wedding on Friday afternoon was to be followed by a party in the back yard.) Colorful lights were strung, tables were set with Provençal tablecloths and simple decorations gleaned from the nearby olive trees. A food truck arrived. We practiced snatched of music for the church wedding on Saturday.

 

The afternoon civil ceremony was held in the village’s town hall – I’m not sure it had ever been so packed! Monsieur Mayor read the brief articles of marriage, and the happy couple said yes and signed the requisite paperwork. After the brief ceremony, we gathered on the local plaza, the photos and visiting accompanied by background music provided by two local musicians.

The evening’s party was relaxed – twilight settling over the festively-adorned lawn, good food and drink, and a few speeches.

Saturday dawned with rain in the forecast, but that wasn’t allowed to spoil the day. Early afternoon, the musicians for the church ceremony gathered for our one and only rehearsal all together. There was a small choir, as well as violin, cello, clarinet, bassoon, and organ (me: keyboard). It was a bit nerve-wracking, but also fun – we were short on time and everyone wanted to play especially well for Pauline (a fabulous violinist).

The ceremony was conducted by a priest hailing from Chile, who is a close family friend. The beautiful setting and thoughtfully crafted service — a tiny, packed church, dating probably to medieval times,  simple decorations made of dried wheat and lavender, beautiful Baroque music — created a very special atmosphere.

After the wedding, there were the customary photos for family, and then we all headed to the reception at a hotel some little distance away. Oh my, what a grand occasion! Drinks and hors d’oeuvre were followed by a splendid meal.  The tables were set not only elegantly, but Pauline had carefully placed the guests; I found myself seated between a French violinist and a Korean cellist – both friends whom I met at the music university in Vienna. Moreover, each of the perhaps 100+ guests’ name cards included a hand-written note!

A leisurely four-course meal was interspersed with speeches and by the rather hilarious retelling of the bride and grooms’ first meeting. Dinner was followed by dancing that continued far into the night. I think I left around 2 or so (a.m.), but the party was far from over!

The next morning, there was a brunch for all the wedding guests, and then people slowly dispersed to their respective homes. I caught a train back to Paris and spent the night at a friend’s place. The next morning there was a bit of time to walk through Paris – past the construction zone around Notre Dame and along the Seine and through a corner of the Luxembourg Gardens – before an afternoon flight landed me back in Vienna.

What a summer! I am thankful for the many wonderful visits and for the time outdoors and for the special occasions to celebrate with family and friends.

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Colorado

Over the summer, a friend asked me what makes me most happy. The answer was easy:

  1. Hiking above tree line,
  2. Sharing meaningful conversation with a friend or small group of friends,
  3. Playing chamber music.

Not every day is one blessed with getting to do what makes one most happy, but what about a whole week of combining two of those things!

In early September, Hannah and I flew out to Denver (side note: Southwest Airlines is amazing – friendly staff, unusually relaxed atmosphere, two checked bags allowed, and they even still give you drinks and snacks on domestic flights!) to spend a week with dear family friends Bob and Claire. They have known us since we were born (and our mom before she ever met our dad)! So, there is a lot of history to this friendship, which makes it extra special.

With a week together in the mountains, there was time for all sorts of good things. Plenty of topics of discussion – books, catching up on their family (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren), and appreciating the unique gift of being able to talk about our dad and mom with people who have known them longer than we have. (Mom met Bob while working for a high school sports magazine – I still can’t imagine her finding the topic remotely interesting, but she did make lifelong friends there!)

We played games, got our fill of politics watching one of the Democratic debates, shared delicious meals, listened to wonderful travel stories, shared book suggestions.

We enjoyed dinner at the highest pub in the Western Hemisphere and perused the magical photography of a local Breckenridge artist. There were long drives to see mountain vistas and catch sight of the first golden leaves appearing on the aspens and (especially on my end) straining to spot a moose in any boggy patch with lots of underbrush. Here, maybe?! 

Then the hiking! Hannah and I were both keen to get in some good hikes, and our hosts insisted on being our “Sherpas” (their word!) for the week – dropping us off at trail heads and picking us up at an agreed upon times.

On Monday Hannah and Claire and I chose a trail nearby – a series of lakes and a landscape dotted with discarded mining equipment. Claire opted for a shorter version of the hike, choosing to set up her watercolor materials and then take a leisurely pace back to the car. Hannah and I got to six or seven lakes, enjoying the sparsely populated upper trail and the rugged peaks forming a ring around the high basin we were hiking in. We managed to hear, and then see, a small rock slide – fun from a safe distance. 

On Tuesday Bob and Claire had to drive back into Denver for the morning, so they dropped us off (not exactly on the way!) at the pass where we could head up Mount Bierstadt, one of the nearby 14ers. (I found the name rather amusing – but rather than a nickname for Munich and its famous Oktoberfest, apparently Mr. Bierstadt was actually an American landscape painter.)

What a great day!!! Unlike some 14ers, you could see the peak from the parking lot – no false summit on this straight-forward mountain. Around 9:30, we stopped for our first snack break; wow, did leftover pizza taste amazing! (Side note: If you are ever on I-70 heading west out of Denver, do stop in Idaho Springs for Beau Jo’s pizza, with their signature combination of honey drizzled on the thick crust!)

We got to the peak around 11:00, sharing the 360 degree views with a number of other happy climbers.

It’s funny how hiking a mountain becomes a momentary bonding experience for people who have never met and will probably never meet again. We enjoyed meeting a guy who was hiking his first 14er, as well as someone who had hiked all 50+ of them.

Everyone on the peak was treated to a special sight – a fantastically fast Air Force jet flying by at eye level. As Hannah said, it was so close we practically could have seen the pilot if we had had time to think. We heard the jet before we saw it; he waved his wings (in greeting?) as he hurtled by.

On Wednesday, we took an aspen-lined drive up to Boreas Pass. Claire set up her watercolor painting supplies, and Hannah and I took a short hike in hopes of finding mountain goats. We didn’t find any goats, but I did find the most alarmingly huge grasshoppers (that looked like they had gotten their gene pool mixed up with cave crickets – ugh!) and very strong winds.

On Thursday, we woke up to find that the higher elevations had been dusted with snow, which was quick to burn off with the morning sun. Our hosts had suggested a particularly scenic section of the Colorado Trail, 12 or 13 miles of the 400+ miles that stretch from Denver to Durango.

Starting and finishing for the day….

  Despite ongoing logging efforts in the area (what seemed to be a mulching industry, aimed at the pine trees affected by the invasive beetle species), it was indeed a most scenic hike! We found the area that had suffered a forest fire in recent years particularly intriguing – blackened trunks and logs intermingled with colorful wildflowers, and vivid green grasses edging a tiny brook.

  Further up, we encountered a bit of snow incongruously adorning the flowers and greenery, and eventually we made it to the ridge of the Ten Mile Range, with expansive mountains views off both sides of the Continental Divide.

 

The trail was not very heavily trafficked. For the first while, we leapfrogged with an odd hiking pair – a fairly seasoned-looking young Swede and his younger Alabamian companion, both aiming all the way to Durango. The guy from Alabama, we decided, had never been to the Rockies before. He would stop and take pictures, then run ahead to catch up. At one point, somewhere around tree line, we heard him up ahead let out a joyful whoop, apparently in sheer delight at the grand surroundings. Did he ever catch up with the Swede?

By Thursday evening, we were both pretty happy with the week’s hiking log, though I was still game to use our last full day for another 14er. As it turned out, Hannah was more than happy to let me bag Quandary Peak, which she and Peter hiked two summers ago. Because it’s a very well-traveled path and an uncomplicated trail, no one put up any resistance to my hiking alone for the morning. Boy was I happy (and a bit nervous).

Bob and Claire and Hannah all got up early to drive me to the trail head by 7:00. To my great delight, just above tree line, a small flock of mountain goats topped a ridge and aimed straight for the trail! They were quite sure the trail belonged to them, idling along it without any sign of hurry.

Just after 9:00 I got to the top. If the wind hadn’t been so cold that I couldn’t stop shaking, it would have been a great spot to hang out for a while with a good book. Views all round and bright morning sunshine and plenty of trail food and no need to hurry down.

It was fun to chat with folks along the way. There was a guy celebrating his 60th birthday, a batch of guys looking a bit more winded that their general state of health appeared to merit (but at least one of the crew had flown in the previous night from New Orleans – talk about setting yourself up for altitude sickness!), and a French dad and daughter who were taking a day trip with friends from their home in Denver.

I got down just before 11:30 – a mighty short day compared to our first 14er as a family, which took over 14 hours! From the trail head, we drove over to a nearby reservoir, again in hopes of sighting mountain goats. What should we find arriving at the parking lot, but a young, lone goat just waiting to show off! He was obviously accustomed to humans and seemed happy to display his agility and model his good looks.

He was pretty social, too — Bob caught him acting as if he was keen to be our new pet:

And the best shot (again, thank you, Bob!):

We finished off the week with another stop for pizza in Idaho Springs and then a great cup of coffee at Sapor Coffee, run by Bob and Claire’s grandson and his wife.

What a wonderful week!

Next episode featuring…France.

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Tennessee

The last time I covered the stretch of road between Tennessee and Pennsylvania I was driving a moving truck north, running on fumes physically and emotionally after packing up our childhood home in Knoxville. So, I felt both anticipatory and anxious about being back in Tennessee 2 ½+ years later. In the ends, my apprehensions about being back in Knoxville – how the house was being kept up by the renters, and how I would manage to see at least most everyone I wanted to see, and how I would reconnect with family and friends – were, if not unfounded, softened by the kindness and warm welcome extended by so many.

The trip south included a worthy detour. I drove into D.C. to visit my old roommate Jessica, who moved back to the States in February. What a great two hours, which flew by far too fast!

In Knoxville I had three different wonderful host families over the 10 days – first, one of my earliest childhood friends and her husband and their little boy – who was quite happy to know me as “Aunt Eva”; then with an aunt and uncle – with more concentrated time and great conversation together than we’d ever had before; and then finally with a couple whom I’d be happy to call aunt and uncle – who spoiled me with the peaceful quiet of their home, German cuisine shared with a cousin who dropped in, and even an afternoon water skiing.

Besides wonderful visits with those who kindly hosted me, there were too many other special visits to adequately name. …Meeting up with a neighbor from my South Knoxville days, whose son I used to teach piano, and finding that despite our different stages in life and our homes thousands of miles apart, we could dive right in to meaningful and memorable conversation over coffee at a favorite bakery. …Visiting with elderly friends, meeting up at a hospital rehab facility where the husband was having testing done after a stroke. It was not the most ideal context for a visit, but I was struck by the perseverance of these dear people – and struck by the wife’s joy-filled confidence in the Lord amidst recent adversity. …Catching up with a group of women who used to gather weekly, and finding that our significant shared history had a way of seeming to reduce the gap between our last meeting over two years before and the present. …Spending an afternoon talking with a friend who volunteered as Mom’s nurse for many, many hours. …Impromptu meetings with friends and acquaintances at church. …A lavish breakfast with perhaps the biggest garden enthusiast I know (I think she said she put up 200 pounds of blueberries from her garden this past season?), seasoned with interesting stories and enriched with a sense of shared family history going back decades. …Digging through a closet with a friend in Tennessee August heat, trying to find Mom’s recipe box – located somewhere in one of the many boxes being stored in the friend’s parents-in-laws’ house (long story). …Enjoying a few rounds of the quintessential Holder game of croquet with my aunt and uncle! The list could go on.

Seeing our house was really important. I enjoyed meeting the couple now calling it home. Even if it seemed strangely different without the contents as I remembered – the formal dining room furniture and the many books – it was gratifying to sense that the couple living there enjoys the beauties (and puts up with the eccentricities) of an old house. Some things were the same – the charming cabinets in the kitchen, the bedroom curtains Mom sewed from wispy, white Indian saris. Some things improved – Hannah and Peter had new carpet put in and themselves radically upgraded the pantry (which Dad used for his study all those years).

Outside, I wandered around the yard slowly, trying to take in the way the field next door had grown up into a temperate-climate jungle, feeling a bit sad that the garden hadn’t been tilled or planted, appreciating the tire swing Peter had hung on their last visit before the house got rented out.

 

I also finally had the opportunity to visit the cemetery where both parents are buried. Of course, I had been there before, but when I last left Tennessee, the inscription for Mom’s grave was not yet in place, which was a definite disappointment at the time. I’m glad Hannah and I chose the phrases we did for the gravestone. For Dad, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), and for Mom, “Those who look to Him are radiant” (Psalm 34:5).

After so many visits and impressions and memories, it was time to head back north. Back in PA, there were a few days to recover from the full days in Tennessee before the next adventure.

Coming up next…Colorado.

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Pennsylvania

With 2020 just around the corner, I’ll take a long-overdue glance back to the summer and autumn. For those of you who get around to reading this before Christmas, here’s wishing you merry celebrations with family and friends, real joy in considering Christ’s Incarnation, and deep hope in Him for the new year.

Pennsylvania was home base for the time State-side this past summer. The trip started out with a family reunion (Mom’s side).  A group of aunts and uncles and cousins and siblings rented two houses in the Poconos for the better part of a week.

The week was good, even if the usual Tschetter family reunion activity of mountain hiking was mostly lacking. (I’d been given to understand that the Poconos are mountains, but I didn’t find the mountains. One morning I went for a jog, and I got a huge kick out of the ludicrous fact that at the top of the hill there was a ski slope. I just hope it was the bunny slope and that there were some real mountains in the fog – but I guess I probably just need to repent of being a mediocre skier in danger of becoming a bit of a snob.)

Instead of hikes, we took some short walks, played games, put together a jigsaw puzzle, and cooked (and consumed) delicious meals – including the legendary waffle breakfast and innumerable pots of coffee (sorry for all the comments about making it strong enough!).

The highlight in terms of activities was an afternoon kayaking/canoeing on the nearby lake. Although cut short by a thunderstorm sweeping in, it was quite idyllic – paddling through patches of water lilies that made one think of the fields of lilies near the world’s end in Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and observing from a distance a family of bald eagles perched in a huge dead tree by the shore.

From the Poconos, we headed back to Lancaster, with the chance to spend a few more days with the aunts and uncle who had time to explore a bit of Amish country.      After they headed back home to St. Louis and Phoenix, Peter and Hannah and my destination became Manheim! Not the Old World city, but a town in Lancaster Country and the Westons’ new address! The new house is actually rather old – creeping up toward the 100-year mark, with lots of character and plenty of projects waiting. Hannah and I primarily tackled the painting – whew, what a (self-inflicted) task! I definitely gained a better appreciation for Dad’s work as a house-painter!

The new home-owners picked a classy barely-off-white, and we went to work – Hannah is the queen of eggshell trim painting, and I painted significant amounts of ceilings and walls, but also significant amounts of myself. Goodness, if the mark of a good painter is minimal quantities of paint on clothes and skin and glasses, and in hair and even eyes, then I am most definitely a terribly painter. All in all, though, it was fun, despite the aching muscles and the extra coats needed to cover heavy colors chosen by the previous owners. I’m grateful for getting to make some memories together in their new abode, even if I left before moving day.

But it certainly wasn’t all work. Hannah and I spent a glorious day at Longwood Gardens – a private gardens covering hundreds of acres. We were determined to include some plein air art in the day – one of the main reasons for Hannah having a season’s pass for the year. So, we found places for her to paint and me to draw, wandered through the beautiful formal gardens and immense conservatory and large vegetable garden, enjoyed an outdoor performance of blue grass music in a Pennsylvania version of a Bavarian beer garden, and stayed late enough to watch the fountains and lights show.    The highlight of the gardens for me was the water lily exhibit – the luxuriant blooms, some diurnal, some nocturnal, and the gigantic lily pads. Because the garden staff was thinning the lily beds, we got to see the underside of the lily pads; I would not have guessed that they would be covered in vicious thorns.      Another day we took sketchbooks to another beautiful, if less grandiose, garden – an ideal place for a picnic or a nap on the grass or a good book. We also took tours of two old houses in the area. The older homestead was built by a German-speaking Mennonite family (I enjoyed attempting to cipher the archaic spellings and script in a Bible or song book housed in the museum); the land was bought from the son of William Penn way back in 1735.

   

I always enjoy visiting Peter and Hannah’s church, and this trip was another opportunity to meet up with friends of theirs whom I’ve met in the past. It means a lot to get better acquainted with their circle of friends – a lovely batch of people.

We also enjoyed time with Peter’s side of the family. One afternoon and evening we spent down at his dad’s place, a bit south of Lancaster. This visit was partly motivated by a promise of being taken for a drive in both of his dad’s old Jaguars. The convertible, which he first bought around 60 years ago, still drives beautifully (if a bit smelly)! The larger sedan gives one the impression of truly riding in first class – tons of legroom and backseat amenities including fold-down wooden trays for meals on the road. The driver has the added luxury of a second gas tank! I asked Peter’s dad what kind of speed it could manage, and the octogenarian immediately stepped on the gas to assure me of its continued road-worthiness!

Speaking of road trips, stay tuned for . . . Tennessee!

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