Driving into Vienna a few weeks ago from a week-long road trip to Tuscany and last week from an excursion to Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp, I had the warm sensation of going “home.” That I could feel so comfortable, especially given the radical distinctions between the two venues, spoke volumes about Year Three of ex-pathood, the year in which the adrenalin rush of the first year and the slight bafflement of the second transformed into the “ahh” moments of the third.
Ironic, given that just as Vienna has become home, we’re returning to our real home in Virginia in five hectic days. Fortuitous, given that if we were to spend another year here, our roots would burrow more deeply into the soil of this stimulating, contradictory, maddening, extraordinary, graceful and graceless city.
|Misti in Pietrasanta|
That mixture of home here and there was sweetly realized in June when Karen and Reuben from Minneapolis, friends of 30 years, visited the week of my 60th birthday. Birthday eve was spent drinking and laughing (and laughing more as we drank more) in a centuries-old wine cellar, where I was serenaded by a violin/accordion duo who had been tipped off as to my birthday. They regaled us with, of course, American tunes, how fitting and how sad. The next morning we headed off in the Kangoo for Bratislava, Slovakia, a town we had visited only once before with Keir.
It was an utterly gorgeous day and we simply wandered through the much smaller city with yet another ancient and tragic history, a ragged town that lacks the veneer of Vienna, which might be why I feel so comfortable there. As usual, I engaged in conversation with several of the people we met in stores and in restaurants, and in each case, the sense of struggle was pervasive regardless of the age. At the top of a historic tower, I spoke at length with an expat from England, who has made Bratislava his home and fears that dirty Russian money being laundered through the development of substandard and aesthetically challenged construction is damaging the city irretrievably. The inevitable clash of the old and the new, the innocent and the corrupt.
|Misti, Karen, Ruben|
Our new Vienna (not necessarily Viennese) friends don’t share such an extensive history, but by existing for us only in the now, they, too, grace our lives. Here’s Jim on his recent adventure with a man whose presence we will miss, our landlord, Uwe:
We have written in the past about Uwe’s Garden of Wonder, a backyard jungle that is home to turtles, bees, chickens, toads, and goodness knows what else. Uwe was an adventurer in his youth, cruising through the Sahara and other parts of Africa in a 1970 Land Rover that he bought almost new in Vienna (see top image). In addition to Africa, he and his wife drove more than a dozen times to Turkey where, in Uwe’s words, “We lived as gypsies, going where we wanted and sleeping in the back (of the Land Rover).”
He was touring Morocco with a woman friend from Sweden when he was arrested for carrying a pistol. He was handcuffed and driven 1,000 km (in the Land Rover, with the Swedish woman) by two Moroccan cops. When they arrived in Rabat for his trial (before a military tribunal), the woman (not under arrest) quickly called the Austrian ambassador, who showed up for the hearing.
Uwe said they stood him before the tribunal, all men in military uniforms, and demanded to know why he had the pistol. He told them he was driving in Africa with a woman and needed the gun to protect her.
|At the Grain Elevator|
That large green Land Rover now sits in Uwe’s driveway, looking every bit like a set piece from a Hollywood movie. Uwe, at 77, is losing his sight and can’t drive it any longer. “But I can’t let it go,” he said to me a few months ago.
I offered to drive him through the Vienna Woods if he could get the beast legal again. He smiled and asked if I really thought I could drive it. No power steering, he noted. No power brakes. No synchronizer between first and second gear. I’m an old guy. My first car was a Hillman Minx. I thought I could manage.
|A year's supply|
|A small-scale adventure|
We made it out of town and eventually relaxed into tales of Uwe’s adventures. The Land Rover doesn’t go over 70 km per hour, he said, but I got it up to 80 to pass a truck. “This is good,” Uwe said. “It likes you.”
We loaded up the bags of corn and wheat at a grain elevator about 15 km outside of Vienna and made it back home … the return trip smoother than the outgoing one. It wasn’t Africa, but it was an adventure.