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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2019 (so far)

Looking back over 2019 so far, there’s plenty to fill a blog post. In this report, I’ll stick mostly to travel, since seven months of the year is far too long to do justice to more generally. Besides, the happenings between travels —  juggling part-time jobs and university studies, the prospect of moving for the fourth time (depending how you count) in three years, deepening friendships and also adjusting to the hole left by close friends moving away, and all the other joys and humdrum and challenges of daily life — don’t always lend themselves to exciting blog posts.

Stateside for Christmas

It seems like a long time ago by now, but 2019 started out in Pennsylvania. Or, in a less self-referential universe, I suppose it started somewhere over the Pacific and raced around the world to those of us propping our eyelids open at 12:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Spending the Christmas holidays with Hannah and Peter was filled with time to relax, reenact traditions, and interact with new and old friends. We spent a good bit of time with Peter’s side of the family, and they included me very warmly in the festivities. I got to be “Aunt Eva” to the their two nephews, which was quite a delight, and also felt like I got to know the whole family a bit better. It was also great to get to put names and faces together of friends Hannah had mentioned but whom I hadn’t met yet. Another highlight was visiting their church, Wheatland Presbyterian — well-thought-through liturgy, good singing, friendly people, etc.

There were lots of Christmas and New Year’s festivities to be enjoyed, including decorating the Christmas tree together and enjoying the array of requisite Tschetter-Holder Christmas baked goods and traditional Holder Christmas breakfast. Hannah also cooked some of the best (and hottest) Indian curry I’ve tasted, and Peter was easily persuaded to conjure up a massive New Year’s feast of pork and sauerkraut.

We also took some fun outings — a frigid walk over the Susquehanna River followed by nosing around antique shops, plus visits to a gigantic train museum and a surprisingly extensive small-town clock museum.

Although I didn’t make it down to Tennessee over the holidays, my friend Jessica flew up for a few days, leaving the toddler at home with her husband. We spent lots of time talking, visiting the fun Dogstar Books, and playing games. Plus ringing in the new year together with the Weston crew.

Besides visits and holiday festivities, there was also time to properly relax. One of my favorite parts of the trip was being more or less unplugged from computer and phone and work back in Vienna. I’m not sure how many hours I spent reading or napping on the Weston’s comfy couch, not to mention games and movies shared and walks or jogs through the scenic neighborhood.

Moving

Last October my roommate here in Vienna and I realized we both needed to move early in the new year. We managed to cross the one year mark in our “new” flat, but it still felt way too soon to schlep everything elsewhere. It was really, really sad to say goodbye to a great roommate of three-plus years as she headed to a new job in the U.S., but we made the most of the last weeks — innumerable cups of tea (and batches of stove-top popcorn and episodes of West Wing) and also some special outings.

In early February we joined another friend to drive to a large Austrian lake popular for ice skating. In fact, the Dutch have begun holding races on the Weißensee, because the ice conditions are more dependable that those back in the Netherlands.      We weren’t exactly competitive ice-skating material, but we sure had a lot of fun on the 4 kilometer loop (about half of the lake). One of the best parts was observing the ice’s attraction for all ages and all forms of locomotion. Young moms with strollers, dogs out for a walk, a bicyclist, a gleeful unicyclist, of course the Dutch speed-skaters, and, on the neighboring snow-covered fields, horse-drawn carriage rides.     

I’d like to go back some time after the lake freezes in December and before the first snow — supposedly under ideal conditions you can see the fish swimming around beneath the ice!

Easter Holidays

Over the Easter holidays I traveled to the western provinces of Tirol and Vorarlberg to visit friends who have moved away from Vienna. Although April was remarkably warm, with a tumult of spring flowers in bloom, the mountains were still under their thinning blanket of winter snows. Besides enjoying the advent of spring-in-earnest, there were long walks, welcome quiet, good talks, and Easter festivities.

     

School Trip

At the end of the school year, I joined a group of students for a music trip to Hamburg. It was an adventure traveling with two other teachers and about 20 middle and high school students — night trains there and back again, and then a full schedule of musical events with a sister school there, plus sightseeing.

   

A most unexpected highlight was acquirement a last-minute ticket to the usually sold-out Elbphilharmonie. The concert hall is an acoustic wonder, and the building has become more or less the icon of the city, built to resemble the waves of the Elbe River, on which it’s built. The concert featured a Bruckner symphony and an especially wonderful Shostakovich cello concerto. While the concert was a trip highlight, the trip itself was a special way to say goodbye to a school setting where I’ve worked for four years. I’m transitioning now to a part-time job at the university for the coming semester.

Summer Hiking

The summer has also included three short hiking trips with three different friends — my old roommate, back for a business trip, then with Anne, a friend from church, who moved all the way to Australia, and finally with Stefanie, the Austrian friend I’ve done quite a bit of hiking with over the past several years. (You might recognize Anne and Stefanie from the Dolomites post two summers ago.)

Jessica and I spent two days hiking at Traunstein — but significantly more time recovering from sore muscles. The trail was not long, but wow, I’ve hardly ever climbed something so steep!

After a train ride, we arrived in Gmunden, took a ferry across the picturesque lake, and then headed up — it was a trail for hands as well as feet. At the peak we enjoyed watching a glider float past, about at eye level. We stayed overnight at a hut, which turned out to be a funny experience. Someone had planned her 30th birthday celebration at the same hut, so there was a festive atmosphere and a special array of Austrian-Iranian food (the cook was from Iran). We were impressed by the low-key nature of the party and headed to bed around 10 p.m. (the fairly universal hour at which hut courtesy and custom demands silence). Around 1:00 a.m. (?) the throbbing beat of a disco party starting up downstairs rudely disturbed my slumbers (though some people can apparently sleep through anything!) — maybe next time I will try to avoid mountain-top birthday parties.

In June Anne and I headed to southern Germany for some hiking. En route our bus through Salzburg was slowed by a parade, which provided some entertainment for sure!

We explored a bit around a lake the first evening, and then planned to get a good night’s rest before hiking. To our great consternation, around 3 a.m., a huge racket — dozens of fireworks? or gunshots? — broke out. It would have been remarkably loud anywhere, but given the otherwise absolute calm of the small village, it was all the more bizarre. Come morning, we asked one of the hotel staff what it was all about. She admitted she hadn’t heard anything (What?!) but that it was a tradition on church holidays (we were there on the Pentecost weekend) for the locals to shoot their guns in the middle of the night. Who knew?

The next day we were up and running after an ample Austrian-style breakfast. Part way up the mountain, we were delighted to find a little hut selling fresh milk. Of course, we had to stop and have a mug!

…The peak offered a 360 degree mountain vista — a corrective to my image of Germany being largely flat or just hilly! But then, Bavaria has a lot in common with Austria in various respects (not including, as far as I know, marking special days on the church calendar with an extended volley of gun shots).

The path immediately below the peak was covered by snow. It was steep enough to be great for sledding, even minus a sled! Apparently some other people had the same great idea — I came across someone’s car keys for their BMW on the way down.

In July Stefanie and I spent two days hiking the Ötscher mountain. Part of the trail was along a beautiful stream — such incredibly clear water and perfect for a swim on a hot day!

Part way up we came across a large cave opening — talk about air conditioning — and then  carried on up to the peak over a part of the trial known as the Rauer Kamm (rough comb). It really felt like that — with the trail leading directly over the rough rocks, leaving hikers to scramble up and over and ignore any slight twinges of Höhenangst. Despite the largely rocky and dry environment, there were some wonderful wildflowers along the way.        

We spent the night part-way back down the mountain and were spared any unusual noisy disturbances either inside or outside the hut!

Vienna

…As wonderful as it is to get out of the city and to the mountains, it’s also good to stop along familiar routes and enjoy some fresh glimpse of the city.   

And as always, one of the best parts of the current season is enjoying the long summer evenings! I’ll sign off with a couple glimpses of a recent sunset.

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Hannah and Peter’s Visit

With Advent well underway — and bags (mostly) packed for flying to Pennsylvania to spend Christmas with Hannah and Peter — it’s high time to finally report on their trip here to Vienna last summer!There were lots of highlights, but the common thread for all the things we enjoyed together was the unique opportunity to get to know my sister and brother-in-law better as a couple. Considering that we spent practically all our wakings hours for 2 1/2 weeks as a three-some — and enjoyed it — I’d say the visit was a great success.

We laughed a lot. Happily, Hannah and I have always laughed a lot together — we probably find each other funnier than most other people do. But, it was especially wonderful to confirm that the three of us share a pretty common vocabulary of humor! I’ve been requested to bring an Austrian newspaper home for Christmas, so that Peter can practice his German pronunciation for us; I am laughing now, in sheer anticipation.

Over the course of their visit, we enjoyed sharing other common interests. Hannah and Peter both possess a love for detail, and for photographing detail. I don’t know if I want to ask how many pictures they took between them (or how many duplicates of the same subject matter), but it was fun to be extra observant with them. We did a lot of walking. Enjoying art and architecture — church spire against dramatic skies. Hand-painted lettering on buildings, Hundertwasser oddity and Rathaus (city hall) splendor. Vienna’s Augarten porcelain manufacturer — the pleasure of watching the artisans painting delicate patterns on the fine china. Perusing furniture, collectibles, and jewelry at the Dorotheum, one of Europe’s largest auction houses. Meandering through parks. Museum-pacing through an exhibit of Otto Wagner architectural drawing/paintings, trying to picture Vienna as it was imagined by this 19th/20th century visionary, whose grand ideas were largely frustrated by the more traditional voices of his day. Guffawing our way through the most senseless modern art exhibit I’ve ever seen. We were so dismayed at its paucity that it all became one big joke — if there had been a candid camera, our uncontainable laughter at the “art” would have made a quite decent exhibit (by comparison) in and of itself.

There were many tasty foods to sample together — don’t try dieting when company comes to town! “Pork knuckle” at a stereotypical Bavarian-style beer garden, grilled chicken with Peter as chef, a windy picnic on the rooftop with delicious farmers’ market cheese. An afternoon and evening with my former tutoring students’ family — wined and dined with gracious Austrian hospitality. A favorite Heuriger, complete with Sturm, Schwarzwurzel, and accordion music.

Hiking! We spent a day hiking and Klettersteig-ing outside of Vienna. We also spent a few days in the Alps, starting with a couple of days at an Austrian Hütte, located on a plateau packed with beautiful and quaint views.The first afternoon we visited an exquisitely clear mountain lake. I braved a chilly but splendid swim by one of the islands. The next day we ventured to a peak, though, especially for the geologist and rock lovers amongst us, the joy was most definitely in the journey! There were fossils decorating the rocks, as well as deep crevasses from the once-upon-a-time glacier, scary and also intriguing. We got an inordinate amount of pleasure out of dropping stones in and listening for how long they bounced to the bottom. The following day we returned to lower elevations for a special splurge of a night at a fancy hotel overlooking a big, deep lake. The setting was perfect for an evening stroll, as the rain clouds lifted and the evening light played on the water. The next morning we feasted on a delectable breakfast buffet.Then we visited another lake. Fish eddied within a safe distance of where we were wading, making Peter wish for his fishing rod. Later, we learned that the lake is cloaked in mystery — it’s one of many locations that was a dumping ground for Nazi cast-off treasures (in this case, at least reams of counterfeit money intended for flooding the British market).

There was also a day for cycling, along with my friend Rebecca. Our ride was interspersed with castle ruins and a stop at a Heuriger, where we sipped local wine under a green glow of trellised grape vines.

We played games — Hand and Foot and Rummikub — and put together a jigsaw puzzle and enjoyed movie nights and stove-top popcorn.

Another highlight was seeing my worlds connect of family from the States and of friends here. There was a French meal put on by a friend from church, a brunch at our place, home-made pizza and impromptu hymn sing and poetry recitation with friends from England/Northern Ireland.

…An abundant visit in so many ways! Surly I could think of more noteworthy happenings, but it’s time to sign off tonight, since I should be boarding a plane in about 8 hours!

 

 

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Mom’s Birthday Musings

Last Friday would have been Mom’s 73rd birthday. I took a morning walk in the big park near my flat to think.

Taking walks was one of Mom’s favorite things. Not the leisurely amble conjured up by the term in some people’s minds. Rather, whether the goal was a Colorado summit or making her five rounds of the block in our uneventful Knoxville neighborhood, a certain vigorous momentum was called for. Walking was part of her recipe for sanity.

I recall that when I was about 7 (?), Mom and I made a pact that we would walk (or, in my case, cycle upon my beloved blue and silver bike) every day for three weeks – and then as a reward we would go out to Shoney’s for their breakfast buffet. (That may not seem now like the prize it sounded like then, but we’re talking the late 1980’s – and anyone who knew Mom’s stick figure but not her love for a hearty meal doesn’t know Mom.) I still remember that we missed a day. Mom was willing to accept excellence without perfection and still allow ourselves the reward of the breakfast buffet, but budding perfectionist that I was, I couldn’t imagine compromising the goal. So, one day we had to walk the route twice to satisfy the law’s demands – and, in due time, we did enjoy our reward of breakfast out together. (Sorry, Hannah, I’m sure this was something you missed by being the older child off at school….)

Back to birthdays, I realized on my mom’s-birthday-walk that I couldn’t really remember specifically how we celebrated Mom’s birthdays over the years. Just her last one is in sharp relief – the glorious October weather, with clear air and bright sun and unseasonably warm temperatures. Our attempt to make the day special, but feeling deprived of our usual tool set. How can you celebrate when you can’t chat over coffee, because the birthday girl can’t talk – or drink coffee or eat cake? We – Hannah and I and our cousin Laurel, visiting from New Zealand, and sharing Mom’s October 12th birthday – persuaded Mom to venture outside. We strung up a make-shift sunshade on the front porch, dragged out the oxygen machine, gathered the requisite pillows. Mom’s tiny form – like a baby bird, fragile and dear – sunk into the old rocking chair from our great-grandpa. Flowers arrived from friends, so many that the front porch started to look like a greenhouse.

All those specific memories from her 71st, but what about the years before? There were certainly special meals and friends invited for dinner, but I don’t really recall specifics. Maybe there’s some mental block to be gotten over, or maybe I’m out of practice with remembering. On the other hand, maybe Mom was not the center of attention even on her own birthday, content instead to keep serving while also receiving our small offerings of “many happy returns of the day” (to quote one of the Winnie the Pooh stories I liked as a child).

Remembering. Again and again I am struck with the painfulness and blessedness of remembering. And of how remembering in its sanctified form is inseparable from giving thanks.

So often we seem to be torn between a remembering that is synonymous with vain regrets and a forgetful rush into the future, so busy thinking about what’s next that we can’t even enjoy the present moment. Slowing down to remember becomes almost a spiritual discipline, in some ways uncomfortable or painful, even when the memories are sweet – a means of grace offered in those quiet moments when we reject the urge to check the phone for new messages or to be “productive.”

Remembering refuses to see the passage of time as a necessary evil, but rather embraces the good gifts of God as they are mediated in time and space, fleeting yet cherished. As a Christian, I affirm that God is outside of time, able to see the whole sweep of history, of my little history and the grand march of millennia. Transcendent. And yet, He’s not merely a placid observer, unmoved by the rise and fall of empires or by the rapid succession of griefs and joys of a small child. The story of the Bible is the story of His entering time and space, of intercepting human activity, of showing up – often when most unlooked for.

I acknowledge that day-to-day I struggle to believe He might show up. Can He really unclutter my muddle of doubts and habit and love of comfort and small acts of creativity and cynicism? Does He really take my pain – even in its self-absorbed form – seriously?

Today I remind myself that it’s in the Cross that God in Christ most clearly penetrates our world. The One who could have remained transcendent entered time and space. Not only that, the One who since eternity passed was robed in glorious splendor took on the mantle of shame and human pain. To Christ the man, the agony of the Cross must have seemed an eternity. This was God’s judgment on my self-absorption, my cynicism, my idol of comfort, my unbelief. At the same time, it was – and, timelessly, is – my cure.

Remembering this becomes a sacred act. In a day-to-day discipline of the mind, when I am offered the gift of remembering my story within the much bigger drama of salvation history. In the corporate remembering to which we are called as the Church – “Take. Eat. This is My body. Do this in remembrance of Me.” This meal, this communal act of remembering, is, as we know, also an act of anticipation – Vorfreude. I love the literalness of German – the “before joy.” “As often as you eat this meal and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

In the Holder household cheesecake was the birthday cake of choice. Mom loved it as much as any of us, and it was something she would jokingly declare she was sure would be in heaven (along with no American football – or else she would miraculously have learned to appreciate the latter). I’d like to hope there’ll be cheesecake and a long conversation over coffee with Mom in the new heavens and the new earth (and an uproariously good game of football with Dad — or, better yet, trout streams to explore). I do hope that before the Kingdom comes in its fullness, before the Day dawns when all tears will be wiped away, I’ll have learned to receive the twin gifts of remembering well and anticipating well.

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Cousins Come to Town

In early August, cousins Ben and Franci, and their three daughters, Marica, Esther, and Laurelin, arrived for a wonderful week plus of enjoying Vienna and its environs, seasoned with good conversation, children’s antics, and lots of gelato.          Our first evening together we enjoyed a bit of walking in my neighborhood and downtown. The next day we started out with a visit to the local farmers’ market. That sort of thing is particular down Franci and my alley, but everyone managed to find something of interest, and we also collected a delectable spread for an evening indoor picnic.In the afternoon, it being Ben’s birthday, we landed at a restaurant perched right on the Alte Donau (an oxbow lake, formerly part of the Danube River). It was one hot afternoon, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying a hearty lunch. Afterwards, we practically melting on our way to the swimming area nearby. I’m not always one for lake swimming, but on this day, it was glorious.

Sunday was a very relaxed day. Marica and I stayed home in the morning, enjoying the quiet. (My digital piano, complete with headphones, was a big hit with the girls.) The others went to one of my favorite museums, a collection of clocks and watches.

In the afternoon, we went to church. I was on for interpreting the service — which I look forward to doing but also find a bit nerve-wracking.

Monday was a splendid day! There was interest in boating on the Danube, cycling, seeing quaint Austrian villages, and visiting a castle, and we managed to squeeze them all into one day! We took the train to Melk, and Franci and the younger girls (ages 5 and 8) then headed downstream on a boat. Ben and Marica (age 11) and I rented bikes and traversed the 25 kilometers at a somewhat slower pace.

       Cycling together was a real highlight for me. For one thing, it’s such fun introducing friends to what is one of my favorite areas of Austria. It was also Marica’s longest bike ride to date, and it was cool to see her enthusiasm for the ride. To counteract the summer heat beating down on us, we had a wonderful wade in the Danube.     In the town of Dürnstein, we all met back up and took the short hike up to the castle ruins.  After some clambering around, we reclaimed bikes for Ben and Franci, and I took the girls by bus to our destination a few kilometers farther in the town of Krems. Everyone was in real need of some cooling, refreshing gelato by that point!

On Tuesday we visited the Naschmarkt, home to an array of Turkish and Middle Eastern specialties (baklava, falafel and hummus, etc.) and then spent the afternoon at Schönbrunn park and palace.

I’d been inside once before, about 10 years ago, so it was quite nice to do the tour again. It’s hard to imagine ever calling such a place home, considering the expansive number of rooms, the incredible Chinese ceramics and wood paneling, the golden hall (imitating Versailles), and the general over-the-top elegance.

We learned that Franz Josef, emperor from 1848-1916, began his day around 4 a.m., working straight through breakfast and lunch and spending untold hours in successive, short audiences with his subjects. Although we weren’t totally convinced by the tour’s claim of his taste for simplicity, his rooms certainly were less ornate and sumptuous than other parts of the palace.

After the main palace, we toured the children’s museum in the basement, complete with 18th century extensive floral/jungle-themed murals originally intended to offer a refreshingly cool summer retreat for the then empress Maria Theresia.

One toy on display in the children’s museum was a miniature croquet set, intended for use on a large table. For anyone who knows the Holder love of the game, especially of their own version to be played on an impossibly steep East Tennessee hillside, upon grass wizened by July heat, my amusement at this tame, lilliputian version of the game will hardly come as a surprise.

There was also a dress-up area — oh so cute and silly!                           We even discovered there were costumes for grown-ups. Why not?On Wednesday we headed south of Vienna, to Schneeberg (“Snow Mountain,” though there was precious little of that commodity this time of year!), for the experience of staying overnight in an Austrian Hütte. What fun!It’s a popular area for walkers and hikers of every age, so there’s actually a little cog railway that goes almost to the top. Since the 5-year-old wasn’t going to be up for the hike, Franci and Laurelin took the train, and Ben and I and the older girls hiked up. It was certainly enough of a challenge for all of us, especially the younger members of our party! But they did well! We played word games (“the ____ Austrian mountain goat,” filling in the blank with as crazy or silly an adjective as we could think of, working our way from A to Z), which helped marvelously with forgetting that someone’s legs had “never been so tired!” We stopped to enjoy views, eat snacks from our packs, and even all share a piece of Apfelstrudel at the little hut we passed when our path crossed the cog railway line. A thunderstorm motivated us along, too, although we ended up seeking shelter briefly just inside a train tunnel!

Finally, after a happy reunion with the rest of our party, we arrived at our destination, just as the rain was starting to come down steadily. In the cozy lodge, we shared wonderfully stereotypical mountain fare. Dinner was followed by Ben’s reading more of the Return of the King, which their family is currently enjoying out loud — the girls first time through the Ring trilogy.

Waking up on Thursday to a beautiful morning, Franci and I had a jaunt to the nearest mini-peak, sharing the meadow with a goodly number of munching cows. Coming down for our breakfast, we got rather better fare than the our bovine neighbors. When the waiter asked if we wanted some ham and eggs to go with the basket of bread we were already sampling, we agreed that everyone would like “a bit, but not too much.” Well, apparently the cook thought he was cooking for a crew of intrepid mountaineers, because this was what was brought to our table!

After breakfast, we headed down the mountain in the same formation as before. Of course the route going down was easier, but especially so with a litany of jokes and riddles shared along the way! Friday we finally had a day looking around the Vienna city center. We made the necessary pilgrimage to the main cathedral, and, humorously enough, all five Hoyts thought it would be good fun to visit the crypt, based on my description of the eerie array of bones to be viewed there. Well, at least it was cooler than anything above ground, and no one caught the Plague!

In the afternoon Franci and Marica and I had a look around the Belvedere gardens and had a lovely bit of cake at the former imperial confectionery. The best part of the cafe is having a view into the kitchen, where the staff are hard at work with mounds of delectable ingredients being shaped into pieces of edible art.

In the evening, Ben and Franci and I had dinner out together, visiting a Viennese Heuriger — sampling the local wine and selecting dishes from the glass case (I had a vision of the delight that that would have been to our German-speaking grandmother — I guess I come quite naturally by my love of butter and cheese and curiosity for new culinary combinations!). There was even an accordion player providing dinner music!

Saturday afternoon we enjoyed a picnic in the local park and practiced our frisbee skills. Franci and I also visited a small but delightful museum of a former porcelain manufacturer — with different eras of aristocratic and royal taste encompassing the ostentatiously grandiose, the glaringly “modern,” and the charmingly whimsical.

Our last afternoon featured a game of Ticket to Ride, followed by a quiet evening at home. The week felt both long and short — long for all we’d seen and enjoyed together, and short when thinking of saying good-byes. Sunday there was time for a pancake breakfast before it was time to finish packing up. The suitcases included some new Austrian attire for part of the family!

Thank you, Ben and Franci, and Marica and Esther and Laurelin, for the wonderfully special visit…for the chance to explore a bit of Austria together, for your flexibility, for spontaneous 5-year-old hugs, for riddles and jokes and good conversations, for piano playing and song, for shared delight in the beauty of nature or architecture or culinary art, for outdoor play, and for a feast of memories.

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Roadtrip to France

With a big editing project turned in by mid-July, it was high time to think about a holiday! Rather last-minute, I agreed to join a couple of friends on a road trip from the farthest western province of Austria down to Marsaille and back — a 1100-mile loop down through Lichtenstein, Italy, and France’s Côte d’Azur to Marsaille, then back up through Provence, the Rhône-Alpes region, and then across all of Switzerland. The route showcased mountain vistas, expansive lakes, rocky ocean beaches, sunflower and lavender fields, quaint villages, and a host of other sights.

Although most of the journey was is a borrowed van furnished with camping supplies, I started out by train, making the jaunt to Innsbruck, where I spent a splendid evening with friends and got to meet their new baby.

 

The next morning I headed on to Vorarlberg, met up with a friend who used to live in Vienna, and then joined Anne and Rebecca, who had graciously agreed to my crashing their road trip (thankfully, not literally).

The journey was something of a geography lesson. For any of you who might also feel that your European geography needs some brushing up, here are a couple of maps — first of the train route from Vienna (notice how far east we are!) to western Austria (a bit longer train ride than the driving time between, say, Knoxville and Memphis) and then of the loop down to southern France and back:

The first leg of the road trip Rebecca routed us through Lichtenstein — so that Anne and I could add a country to our list. We enjoyed seeing the prince’s castle, nestled just above  the tiny capital’s main street. After a coffee and posting a postcard, we headed on.

Close to our day’s destination on Lake Maggiore (in Italy), we took a side road up into the Swiss hills, where the roads narrowed, and old stone houses perched charmingly along the hillsides. A clear, cold stream, bounded by beautifully molded boulders, offered an idyllic accompaniment to a walk — and a perfect way to cool off from the July heat.

Later, after settling in at our home base for the next two nights, we took a stroll through the quiet streets of the small-town of Ghiffa and found our hearty appetites more than accommodated by the local pizzaria, the savory flavors enhanced by a view out over the calm lake (the bit we could see — it stretches for 40 miles!).

The next day we took a walk to the next town, enjoyed a swim in the lake, tried out the local gelato, and cooked a simple dinner. The following day we took to the road again. Rebecca’s driving skills were put to the test on numerous occasions — the large van was not made for the narrow roads of coastal Italy or the steep, busy, and narrow streets of Monaco. We gave up on the idea of finding a parking place for a coffee in our next “new” country — finding ourselves driving out of Monaco almost before we’d driven into it, and all a bit frazzled by the driving conditions. I did manage to document the local licence plate pattern.

We arrived at our campground, just shy of the French border, with time to enjoy the beach. I’ll have to admit, I generally have thought that a week’s vacation at the beach sounds rather boring (how much sun and sand can a person take, after all?), but this trip made me rethink that. A whole afternoon to do nothing but alternately jump into the sea, dose under an umbrella, and read Tolkien. Splendid!

The next day, which started with a dip in the sea, we drove on to Marseille, taking in a short visit to Cassis on the way. (Besides the obvious array of boats in a coastal city, note the professional parking job!)

Our friend Andrea had rented a house on the outskirts of Marseille and had invited a whole array of friends and friends-of-friends to come for as many days as we could. Over our few days there, we were seven friends from church in Vienna — five single women and one couple. (We got a lot of mileage out of one Frenchman’s assumption that the Morgans were on holiday with their many grown daughters!)

The first day a group of us ventured into the nearby national park, an area of striking coastal rock formations known as calanques. Because it was a long walk, there were very few tourists, as only the locals were allowed to drive in to the sleepy little waterside village. At lunchtime, we decided to try out the one and only restaurant. The other three girls were all intent on fish for lunch, which led to a very entertaining interaction with our waiter.

Finding that the prices coincided with the marked lack of competition, we attempted to ascertain what on the menu was actually available and affordable. Between our limited French (mine is non-existent) and our waiter’s limited English, it wasn’t so easy. In the end, he disappeared downstairs to the kitchen, only to reappear with a platter — decorated with the prerequisite lettuce leaves — showcasing the (raw) fish he could offer. Well, none of us had had that sort of menu description before! In the end, everyone was terribly happy with her meal, and I even managed the glass of Pastis I was hoping for.

The next day, we took a boat taxi into Marseille’s harbor, then jumped on another boat to go to the small islands just east of the city. With a small rocky cove practically to ourselves, we couldn’t have wished for a better spot….  I took an alternate path back to the boat to explore some slightly eerie ruins, which I think mostly dated to the WWII era, and which looked out over both Marseille and over the castle ruins that Dumas apparently used as inspiration for his Count of Monte Cristo. There were also some intriguing “sea dafodills” blooming in the formidably dry environs.

In the afternoon we had a brief look around Marseille, but it was too hot to feel like walking too far.

Nevertheless, Anne and I made the significant climb up to the main cathedral. The Moorish architectural influences were very interesting, as was the boat/ship motif inside. Perhaps local seafarers have a long tradition of seeking blessings for safe travel from the patroness of the church — Notre Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard). The boat ride back offered the perfect evening light for some farewell photos.

 

The next morning we had an outing yet to another cute ocean-side town.

Then it was already time to leave Marseille, now with Koni joining our crew. We said good-bye to our hostess Andrea — who was staying a few more days before moving back to the States — and headed north into the countryside of Provence. …Oak groves, presumably planted for the coveted truffles they attract, intermingled with undulating fields, some still boasting long rows of lavender and heavy-headed sunflowers. Towns with their terracotta-roofed houses and square church spires blended in with the surrounding landscape….

 

In the evening, we enjoyed meandering around the quaint town perched above the camping area.

The next day, which dawned clear and promising after the previous afternoon’s rainstorm (you can’t have a camping trip without encountering at least a bit of rain, can you?), we visited a splendid farmers’ market in the nearby town of Riez, showcasing everything from beautiful soaps to tantalizing cheeses to cheerful table linens to perfectly ripe melons. 

After a picnic lunch, we drove a little ways into the impressive Verdun Gorge before returning to lake level and renting canoes for a couple of hours. The man-made lake extends part of the way into the gorge, allowing for easy access to views of the cliffs shaped by the waters that apparently raged there in earlier times.

The next day we carried on north, enjoying views of the Rhône-Alpes, stopping briefly in Grenoble, and eventually landing in Geneva, where we’d booked a campsite right on the lake. The last day of our loop we drove across all of Switzerland, passing lake after lake, quaint villages, and even a glimpse of Mont Blanc in the far distance.

Arriving back in Rankweil at Rebecca’s home, we were greeted by her parents and their warm-hearted hospitality. To finish off the trip with the best of local cuisine, her mom even made a huge batch of Käsespätzle. The closest thing I can think of is American macaroni and cheese (made with small dumplings instead of macaroni and with very strong “mountain cheese”) — but perhaps the primary similarity is that both foods qualify as quintessential “comfort food.”

Anne and Koni and I took the train towards Vienna the next day, an uneventful conclusion to a special vacation!

 

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