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Stories to Come: Reinventing Fire

West Shore

At the beginning of Amory Lovins’ great book, Reinventing Fire, published in 2012 is a quote from Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939) that will inspire and motivate me for years to come.
Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.
“Traveller, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines conundrum as
a: a question or problem having only a conjectural answer, or
b: an intricate and difficult problem.


The 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are intended to be…  a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance…
UN, UDHR, 1948, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

Nowhere in the 30 articles does the word “energy” appear. However, access to adequate energy is a basic requirement needed to fulfill at least 9 of the 30 articles of the UDHR, if not all of them. 2012 was declared as the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All,” one of the more forgettable of the International Years declared in the recent past, having generated less media coverage in 12 months than the average premier league soccer game does in one evening. Why?

Because the people who make the news don’t have an energy problem themselves. World leaders address gatherings of other world leaders to discuss the issue and then fly away to yet another global meeting, using as much energy in an hour as the poorest global citizens (and there are 2 billion of them) do in a year. So are world leaders the problem?

Not at all. Political rhetoric is only the tip of the iceberg in an ocean of words that have been spoken and written about the problem. And what about the rest of the iceberg? We don’t see it and we don’t know much about it because the iceberg is us. By us, I mean the 2 billion or so who own computers, read blogs and reside at the top of the human food chain, with relatively plentiful access to energy and all the comforts and services it brings. So should we all drown in guilt, change our errant ways, and cut down on energy use?

Of course not. Collective guilt has not solved a single problem for the world, any more than wearing hair shirts has done for the individual.  In the 21st century, it’s possible to eat your cake and have it too. Follow this blog to find out more. In the coming weeks I will post information about the range of technologies in the pipeline that will help achieve this.

Stories to Go 6: Kolschitzky’s Qahveh House

There is a lot about Viennese cafes in the stories on this blog and this is the last one in the series, the legend about how the Viennese coffee house tradition began. This story was written as a sequel to the first in the series (Being with Beethoven), about an elderly pensioner who leads a solitary existence in Vienna. Years ago, I had the good fortune to come across a book called Das Theresianische Wien. It describes Vienna during the reign of this capable and conscientious monarch (Maria Theresia, 1717 – 1780), who laid the foundations for much that is worthy of emulation in this city today. For example, safe drinking water.Vienna’s drinking water today is brought from Alpine sources in the mountains around Semmering, approximately one hundred kilometers south-west of Vienna in the direction of Graz. This water is characteristically low in calcium hydrogen carbonates. Together with its low temperature and high oxygen content, it has a pleasant, sweet taste. In Maria Theresia’s time, Vienna’s water came from wells dug in the swampy countryside and was usually brackish, often foul tasting, and unhealthy. She introduced the sale of bottled water in the mid-1700s, a few decades before Evian was introduced to the world as a health drink for gallstones by the Marquis de Lessert in 1789.A certain Carl Burney from Hamburg writes in 1783 that shopping is no problem in Vienna as the tradespeople come to your home to sell their wares, and de Luca writes in his 1785 description of this royal city that: since the water in Vienna is not very good, there is a wide choice of bottled mineral waters, for example Selter, Rohitscher Sauerbrunn, Spaa, Pyromonter, Eger, Freudenthatler, Vorderbrunn and Pirkenfeld Sauerbrunn, among others. All these are tested for purity by the medical faculty and sold in sealed bottles or krugs.

If you’re interested in 18th century Vienna, and can deal with the sometimes old fashioned German of this book, I can highly recommend it. Das Theresianische Wien, Monika J. Knofler, Boehlaus Verlag, Graz, 1979


He sometimes was unfaithful to his stamm cafe where a place was permanently reserved for him, and wandered elsewhere for a post-prandial cup of coffee.  After all, he thought, one must have something to compare excellence with.  As a wise man remarked long ago, we fully recognize moments of happiness only in retrospect for what they are, never during the events themselves.  So like an errant husband who needs an occasional infidelity to remind himself of the virtues of his wife, he deserted his habitual coffee house for another.

On this Sunday, he entered the cafe on the perimeter of the inner city simply because it looked so venerable, age lending the building a patina reminiscent of sunlight on silver hair.  The walls were decorated with pictures framed in varnished oak; solid, enduring, unaging; the pictures insignificant in themselves but lending atmosphere and character to the place.  Time flew by here just as quickly and inexorably as it did elsewhere, but the decor lent the dark interior an air of unhurried timelessness; this timelesness paradoxically emphasised by the ticking of the pendulum clock mounted on the far wall, hesitantly chiming quarter, half and full hours like a polite old gentleman clearing his throat, too well-bred to raise his voice and interrupt the comfortable hum of conversation.

Nearly all the tables were taken, but he saw a small table-for-two by the window was free and sat on one of the round-seated armless Jugendstil chairs with gracefully curved backrests, waiting with elbows propped on the table to give his order. Sitting there at that window seat was like straddling two worlds. Outside, the bustling stream of cars and assorted city traffic attested that Vienna had joined an exclusive group of cities.  In the inner city, carbon monoxide levels shot up to match those of metropolises like New York, Paris, London or other conurbations listed on the designer packages of prestigious products.  Turning his head backwards through an arc of one hundred and eighty degrees, he travelled backwards in time and imagined that the cafe had not changed decor or character for centuries.

The interior was subdued, the light that came through the windows facing the street had a faint golden tinge from the name of the cafe painted in Gothic letters on the glass.  The waiter, smooth and pale, seeming not to walk but flow, was polite, bringing the grosser brauner with swift, silent efficiency on a silver tray, a single spoon impeccably balanced on the glass of water that was invariably served with the coffee.  Along with the coffee the waiter brought him a copy of the day’s newspaper, mounted as always on a cane frame.  Apart from the muted noises of the busy traffic and the subdued murmur of voices, the only sound was the ticking of the clock.  The scene was probably the same three hundred years ago, he thought.  He blinked and yawned, assailed by a sudden weariness, feeling the years gather in his bones like tree rings in an ancient oak…

The interior was very smoky and smelled.  Smoky because of the pipe smokers who were prohibited, by royal decree, to indulge their habit on the open streets.  They popped in here whenever they felt the urge to smoke, sitting in foggy groups of two and three, drinking glasses or red or white wine.  The room smelled of stale, unwashed bodies, sauerkraut and roasting meat. Above it all the strange aroma was sharp in his nostrils, not unpleasant in its novelty, overriding the miasma of the inn’s dark interior.  A fat chicken pecked at scraps of uneaten food on the floor, squawking noisily when the uncouth oaf at the next table lurched to his feet, sweeping the remnants of his meal to the floor.

‘You haven’t paid for your food,’ the landlord said.  He wore a close-fitting green cap on his head and a brown camisole. His stockinged feet were encased in thick-soled wooden clogs.
‘That will be five kreuzers for the pigs knuckle and,’ he peered into the earthen jar on the table, ‘two for the wine.’

‘At that price, you old highway robber, I’ll drink the rest of the wine.’  The peasant raised the jug and swilled the rest of the wine, a trickle escaping down each corner of his mouth and staining his blue smock.  But the red wine stains were hardly visible among all the other stains already on it.  The old gentleman held his nose and finished the last of his breaded veal cutlet.  It was all the rage here, the latest culinary novelty, and he enjoyed the schnitzel down to the very last golden brown crumb.  ‘Herr Wirt,’ he called to the owner as the latter tested the seven kreuzers on his teeth and pocketed them.  ‘Some water, please.’

‘What’ll it be, sir?  The usual?’

The gentleman nodded and the landlord disappeared into a back room, emerging with a stone bottle in his hand.  He set the bottle on the table and broke open the leaden seal with a flourish.

‘Here you are, sir, bottled water, purity tested and certified by the city authorities.  You’re right not to drink the normal water, gentlemen like you who can afford it.  I’ve heard tell that there are diseases that one can get from drinking the normal water here.’

‘Indeed?  In that case I’m doubly glad I can afford to buy bottled water.  I don’t like the taste of the water here,’ said the gentleman, tucking his fine cambric kerchief into a pocket of his knee length coat of bottle green.  The wide cut claret sleeves of the tight fitting coat whipped with a flourish as he extracted a metal snuff box inlaid with mother-of-pearl.  ‘What is that enticing aroma?’

The thick-jawed yokel overheard the question, guffawed and nudged the owner heartily, pointing to the prim old gentleman.
‘Huh-huh, the gentleman wants to know what the smell is.  Tell him, Gustl.  That’s the smell of poverty, see.  Sweat and dirt and smoke.’

‘Not that,’ said the old gentleman testily, holding the perfumed handkerchief delicately to his nose.  ‘Unfortunately I’m all too familiar with that.  It’s the other thing I’m asking about.’

The Wirt understood immediately.  He frowned at the yokel.’Hush, hush,’ he admonished.  ‘The gentleman’s sense of smell is better developed than yours.  I know what he’s talking about.’
He scratched his ear as though that were his olfactory organ and inhaled the almost visible aroma.

‘That, sir,’ he said proudly, ‘is part of the spoils of war. Taken from the enemy. This being the year of our Lord 1684, last year when the Duke of Lorraine arrived with his troops and Marshal Sobielsky’s Polish army converged on the hills outside Vienna to help our beleaguered city, the enemy fled.  They left behind bags of green beans which were about to be thrown away.  I’m no admirer of the Turks, sir,
believe me.  After all, they threatened and almost took our beloved city, you know that as well as I, having been trapped within these walls during the siege, those two terrible months when even water ran scarce and was so precious.  The memory of thirst is still so frightening and immediate, I can’t believe it was a year ago already.’

‘What was it you took from the enemy?’ asked the gentleman sharply, his curiosity aroused.

‘Those bags of green beans I mentioned, sir.  I have a friend who was a prisoner of the Turks for more than three months.  He is a very clever fellow and a born trader.  He has travelled to many distant places and even lived with the Musalman for a few years, learning their habits and adopting their ways. Anyway, he told me in confidence to salvage those beans and showed me how to prepare them.  When roasted, powdered and added to boiling water, it makes a stimulating drink.’  He took a deep breath and smiled at the old man.  ‘I’ve been wondering what to call it.  The Turks call is Qahveh.’  He repeated the name aloud a couple of times, ‘Qahveh, Qahveh,’ rolling the syllables, testing them on his tongue like a gourmet his food.

‘Qah-veh, Qah-feh, Qah-feh, Qahfeh.  That’s it!  I think I’m going to call it Qahfeh.  And I’m going to rename this place. Kolschitzky’s Qahfeh House.  Doesn’t that sound good? Kolschitzky’s Qahfeh House, and all around it this wafting aroma, the smell of success brewing in the kitchen.’

The old gentleman was not deceived. He knew he was bearing witness to the birth of a legend. Myths and legends did not need to be factually true.  All that they needed for authenticity was a grain of truth surrounded by a cultural cloud of veracity.  What did it matter that the drink had first been brought to the city more than a century earlier by Armenian traders?  Posterity would give Kolschitzky the credit for bringing coffee to Vienna. And in a way posterity’s judgement would confer rightness, as it always did.

The scent of the cold coffee tickled his nostrils with the light touch of a ghost from the grave, waking him with a start. The cafe was almost empty, but outside the bustle of traffic continued undiminished. The silent waiter appeared at his elbow with a faint smile.  ‘I think the gentleman fell asleep,’ he said in the archaically formal third person.  ‘Shall I bring him another cup of hot coffee?’

Maya translated…

Woke up late this morning and was quite pleased to see that the world hasn’t ended yet. I’m pushing 65 and still have a large number of things left to tick off my “to do” list.
Appropriately enough, the Sanskrit word Maya is most commonly translated as “illusion.” Found this neat explanation of the deeper meaning of maya on a posting by someone named Sharon Janis, author of a book called “Spirituality for Dummies.” Check out the web page at

Stories to Go 5: Conversations with a Countess

I came to know the Countess during my early years in Vienna. She was a down-at-heel aristocrat with a pedigree as long as my arm. She was in her eighties and lived very much alone, in a three-roomed flat crammed to the rafters with antique furniture, cupboards full of jewellery, ticking clocks, colorful pennants, an entire wall covered by a Christmas-tree shaped leather family tree with coat-of-arms embossed in faded gold letters. At the top of the tree was a double-barrelled Frenchified aristocratic name with the year 1742 next to it. From there, the tree descended and spread for two centuries, until around the 1940s when that genealogical tree was made.
“I am the last of the line,” she said dolefully, drawing heavily on her cigarette. “The family name will die out with me.”

She was very lonely and loved to talk. I was five decades younger and came from a culture that respected age and experience. We got on very well together. A pattern was established within weeks after our first meeting, I came to expect a gruff-voiced phone call every two months or so inviting me over for a glass of wine.  I rarely refused an invitation and usually took along a carton of her favorite cigarettes or a bottle of red wine. In time a curious kind of friendship developed between us; a friendship sanctified by clouds of mutually exhaled cigarette smoke and sealed anew at each meeting with a bottle or two of red wine.She was flattered that I found her life story fascinating, but in the fragments of her family history, I saw reflected the chequered history of Europe and I always wanted to hear more. Someday perhaps, she smiled an enigmatic smile, I will tell you everything and then you can write the history of my family. But right now, I will simply talk to you as a friend. So we continued to meet, as friends, for three years, several times a year.

She died in 1982. I attended her funeral uninvited and was eyed with mistrust and suspicion by a handful of distant relatives who had appeared out of the woodwork to lay claim to an inheritance which might have been considerable. Perhaps they regarded me as an aspiring false claimant. Such was their suspicion and antipathy, I never got a chance to reassure them that my only claim was to her friendship. Now, three decades later, I have decided to bridge the gaps in her stories with my imagination. Although names have been changed to protect identities, it is a true story nevertheless;  a story of one woman’s courage in the face of cataclysmic world events, and the restrictive mores of her time. The excerpt below is a fragment from a work in progress that will appear as a novel in 2014. As you read, keep in mind Mark Twain’s adage:  Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.


I was standing in the Museum of Art History and contemplating an uninspiring allegorical portrait by Hans Makart when the Countess asked me to sleep with her. I was too embarrassed to look her in the face but when I did after a moment’s silence, the inexplicable intensity of her gaze made me say yes. It was past six in the evening when we were in her tiny, cramped apartment. Removing only my overcoat and shoes, I slid under the crazy patchwork quilt and closed my eyes. I heard the rustle of clothing and felt the mattress subside as she got in beside me. I opened my eyes and it was pitch dark. She had drawn the heavy drapes and turned off the lights. I drew her towards me. She was fully clothed as I was.

Her body grew rigid and began to tremble when I touched her. Only in that instant did I realize the enormity of her loneliness and her need and I recognized it only because my own was as great. I traced the path of her tears with my fingertips and held her in my arms. I did not speak. She was a stranger, and I did not know what to say. I only knew that we had made some kind of a connection, platonically speaking, and not in the crude sense of the term. We had both reached a common node in two hitherto separate existences; she at the end of a long and eventful life; I in the prime of mine.

I know that speaking of going to bed with a Countess brings lubricious images to mind, overplayed scenes of sex and seduction, childish fantasies from immature romances. It was not like that at all, but rather as the book of Ecclesiastes says. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh … a time to love, and a time to hate. A paean to life in all its infinite dimensions which refrains from explicitly saying that sex is wonderful; at the right time, in the right place, with the right person. All things in their proper place and time. That night in the Countess’ souvenir cluttered bedroom was neither the time nor the place for sex. I simply held her in my arms and said nothing. At intervals her shoulders heaved with powerful emotion and all the while a great Danube of tears flowed steadily, like a frontier between two adjacent countries, the past and the future.

A Napoleonic brass eagle soared from the Empire clock that quietly ticked away the minutes. It must have been after midnight when she finally went to sleep. I quietly slipped out of bed, put on shoes and coat and tiptoed out of the flat into the night air. It was early June and the cold was unseasonal. The air was heavy with a mist that made the street lamps gleam distantly. Stray beams of light straggled through the fog, touching the surface of the cobbled streets and making the stones glint like metal.

As I walked the silent streets, I felt light and unburdened, totally devoid of self, as though I too had bathed in the river of the Countess’ tears and been cleansed by it. On the Ringstrasse, the Marriott Hotel with its luminous facade of glazed arches looked like a curious mixture of art and artifice and I could not decide whether I liked or hated it. That facade might serve as an allegory of life, as well as some of the paintings I had seen earlier in the Museum. Our lives constantly hover between Kunst and Kitsch, between Art and Artifice. There is a relatedness, a constant dynamic tension between the two; and it is often only a question of timing that determines whether a work of art is considered to be “artistic” or not.

As in art, so too in human relationships. It is only the context that determines whether a certain act is wise or foolish. I had found out the hard way that there are no easy prescriptions, no set formulae for right action. Life was nothing but an eternal groping for those moments whose luminous beauty made all the waiting and the groping worthwhile. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. Now was the time for me to sleep.

I went back to my hotel room and for the first time in years slept the deep sleep of childhood and of innocence; a sleep that was seamless and untroubled, natural and deep. And when I awoke in the morning I was quietly joyful, refreshed but langorous, as after a night of love.

I dressed and went down in time to gather the last few crumbs of the hotel breakfast and washed it down with two cups of wonderfully strong Viennese coffee. With the smoky flavor of the coffee still on my tongue, I returned to my room and dialed the old lady’s number.

“Yes,” said the Countess.  “I was hoping you would call. If you have time, we might meet again today.

Stories to Go 4: Sweet Peppers

Some time in early 1993 I was sitting in a Viennese cafe on a Sunday morning, engaged in desultory conversation with a couple of friends on what had brought us from such disparate corners of the world to this lovely city. One of them told me her mother had been a flight attendant (they were called air hostesses in those days) and met her father on a plane, thirty years earlier. I wrote a short story that afternoon, totally fictitious, except for the location of the couple’s first encounter up in the air.

Sweet Peppers was published in an early online fiction Magazine called Inter-Text, in March 1993, and can be found at the link below.


History in 1000 words: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Watching the news on TV the other day, my daughter asked me to explain the origin of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I tried to do it in 5 minutes, but got hopelessly bogged down by her questions. When I reflected on it later, I realized one has to go back to the Old Testament for the beginning…

The Biblical patriarch Abraham was born around four thousand years ago in Ur of the Chaldees, most likely near the town of Nasiriyah in present day Iraq, around 2000 BC. In the timeless grandeur of the King James version of the Bible, God says to Abraham in the book of Genesis: Get thee… from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee. Abraham is a God-fearing man and does as God tells him. God leads him to the land of the Canaanites and tells him to look north, south, east and west. This is all yours as far as the eye can see, and beyond, but never mind about the inhabitants, I’ll take care of them (text in italics mine).

Further, God promises to bless Abraham and all his progeny: I will bless them that bless thee and curse them that curseth thee…

So far so good. Abraham is revered as the patriarch by the followers of three religions; by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Abraham had two sons. Ishmael, by his concubine, Hagar; and Isaac, by his wife Sarah. Sarah, however, is jealous of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, and asks her husband to send mother and son away into the wilderness with only some food and water. Abraham is very distressed, but God tells him to obey his wife, that he will take care of them. This is where the trouble begins.

In Genesis, chapter 17, verse 19, God promises Abraham: Sarah, thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him

However, in the very next verse, verse 20, he says: And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee. Behold I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget and I will make him a great nation.

Both these promises are kept. The twelve sons of Ishmael and their progeny went on to control the vast territory between Egypt and Assyria in succeeding centuries. Their descendants grew into numerous tribes and were known as the sons of Obadiah, Eli and so on. Among other names, they came to be known collectively as the Arabs. In the meantime, Isaac’s younger son Jacob, changes his name to Israel, and the children of Israel are subsequently designated God’s chosen people. There are many reversals of fortune throughout the following millenium, but gradually the children of Israel, still identified by their tribes, Reuben, Gad, Manasseh and so on, subdued the local kingdoms and occupied the promised land.

In the 5th century BC the Babylonians under Nebuchednezzar II laid siege to Jerusalem and sacked it, taking all its inhabitants into captivity. The Jewish kingdom of Judah became a province of Babylon, and then later the Roman province of Judaea during the time of Jesus. Jerusalem was destroyed again in the year 70 CE by General (and future Roman Emperor) Titus in his attempt to put down the Zealots’ armed rebellion against Roman rule. The Roman Jewish historian Josephus Flavius describes the storming and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem thus…

There were the war cries of the Roman legions as they swept onwards en masse, the yells of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the panic of the people who, cut off above, fled into the arms of the enemy, and their shrieks as they met their fate. The cries on the hill blended with those of the multitudes in the city below; and now many people who were exhausted and tongue-tied as a result of hunger, when they beheld the Temple on fire, found strength once more to lament and wail. Peraea and the surrounding hills added their echoes to the deafening din. But more horrifying than the din were the sufferings.

The Temple Mount, everywhere enveloped in flames, seemed to be boiling over from its base; yet the blood seemed more abundant than the flames and the numbers of the slain greater than those of the slayers. The soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives.” From: Cornfield, Gaalya ed., Josephus, The Jewish War (1982); Duruy, Victor, History of Rome vol. V (1883).

After this destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, emphasis was placed upon study of the Torah (in its broadest sense) as the most important religious act, leading to an understanding of the proper way of life; upon the growing need for national restoration in the face of continued Exile from the Promised Land.

The centuries after the second destruction of the temple is generally classified by scholars as the Jewish Middle Ages, lasting until about the 18th century, during which occurred the mass expulsions and forced conversions in Spain in 1492 and periodic pogroms in many other parts of Europe. There was, however, a Jewish counterpart to the general European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. The current conflicts between the secular, liberal sections of Israeli society, and the ultra-orthodox Hassidim had their birth in this period. The traditional, inclusive philosophy of the great scholar and rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, on the one hand, was pitted against the unorthodox views of Baal-Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism in the 18th century. Ironically, the Hasidim today consider themselves the traditionalists in modern Israeli society.

The emancipation of European Jews in the 19th century brought its own set of problems: to retain a distinct identity within the larger population, or to blend in and adapt? Both options were chosen by individual families. In the late 19th century along came Theodor Herzl and his espousal of Zionism, which promised a return to the Holy Land, then part of the exhausted Ottoman Empire.

Hitler’s rise to power from 1933 and his manic scheme to exterminate the Jews of Europe is too well known to repeat here. The aftermath of World War II led to the establishment of the modern state of Israel. This time, in place of assurances from God, the state was established with the support of the victors of World War II, the fledgling United Nations, and force of arms. Again, as in the time of Abraham the partriarch, the population displaced was that of the Canaanites, today’s Palestinians.

Where will this story end, with religious conservatives on both sides, the sons of Israel and the sons of Ishmael all claiming that God is on their side and that their cause is just? They are all children of Abraham and the victims of history. As Clarence Darrow once remarked, history repeats itself, and that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.

Stories to Go 3: Mother’s Day in Leopoldsberg

The foehn wind was a phenomenon I first encountered in Austria. People moaned about its debilitating effects and the migraine headaches it caused. I was fortunately insensitive to it, so was indifferent to the phenomenon until I experienced a foehn wind on a ski slope. It transformed an icy, perfectly prepared ski piste into slush-ridden mush in the space of three hours. The temperature rose from minus 3 to plus 8 degrees in this short time, and I understood why my Austrian friends call it a schnee fresser. The foehn is a type of dry, warm wind that blows down the lee side of a mountain after having dropped all its moisture on the other side.

A foehn wind was merely the starting point of the story below. The story has nothing to do with foehn winds. It was published in Vienna Life magazine around 1981.


It was one of those typical foehn-ridden days; a sudden steep rise in temperature and blue skies after so many gray winter days; and she felt an ingrate for resenting the drastic change. What was there to complain about sunny skies? But there was. An oppression in the clear air and she knew the migraine headache was not too far away, announcing its impending arrival by a faint throbbing at the temples. And this evening she’d arranged to meet with Hans at the heurigen. It was simply too bad; whenever she made plans for an evening out with him, something turned up to spoil it.

The little flower shop was crowded with customers as she passed by, the asters, gerbera and the nasturtiums gleaming from behind the plate glass windows with a metallic, freshly-watered wetness. The crowd in the flower shop had spilt out into the street and there were more people impatiently trying to push their way in. There was something odd here, and it took her a couple of minutes to realise what it was. All the customers in the flower shop were men. What on earth? Of course, today was Mother’s Day. Well, didn’t daughters buy their mothers flowers too on mother’s day? Yes, but they probably didn’t leave it till the last moment.

Her eyes blurred with sudden tears as she thought of Hermann. Before he left her for (peroxide) blonder pastures he had never failed to bring her flowers on Mother’s Day. Flowers and a huge, heart-shaped box of schokolade had been his contributions to the preservation of their marriage. She slowed down and examined her image in the steamy window, pretending to admire the flowers. She was pleased with what she saw; a self assured woman in her mid-forties with a touch of dissatisfaction, or was it loneliness? around her eyes. She could imagine the appropriate advertisement in the lonely hearts column of the local newspaper: Attractive woman, slim, chic, mature, financially independent; seeks companionship and emotional security in long-term relationship with kind and thoughtful male.

Hermann had been that kind of male in the beginning, but his head was too quickly turned by the hungry young things that prowled the streets of the city.

There were compensations to living alone. She didn’t have to answer to anyone, not even to Hans, although he was possessive at times. She had accepted his invitation to go to the heurigen that evening. Hans was sweet; although she knew that he enjoyed his freedom and was not prepared to tie himself down into a steady relationship with anyone.

It was a fine day and fine days had been so rare lately that in spite of the premonition of migraine that lowered like an oppressive cloud on the horizon, she walked to work instead of taking the tram. When she passed the fountain on the Michaelerplatz, she noticed that the water had been turned on and the defecating pigeons temporarily used the cobbled platz as a landing field. On an impulse she kicked with a well-shod foot at a pigeon that stood in her path. The bird lazily hopped out of her way, but a little old lady in a green loden coat and the bag of bird feed in her hand scowled at her; the ugly,hate-filled scowl of the passionate bird and animal lover who forgets that humans have their needs and weaknesses too. The scowl was accompanied by low muttered curses aimed at ‘diese junge leut’, and then with a second vicious glance, ‘a’ nimmer mehr so jung.’

The day passed in a blur. The threatened migraine did not materialize, and directly after work she took the 38a upto the Leopoldsberg. It was a pleasant walk from the end station to the heurigen hidden away in a fold between the hills, like a smile on a friendly, wrinkled face, where she’d arranged to meet Hans. There was still plenty of light and the air had that special exhilarating quality of spring, as delicious as a low-calorie dessert you can feel virtuous about having, that she walked longer than expected. Hans was already at the heurigen when she arrived.

He rose to greet her at the entrance to the garden; loose-limbed, long-haired, casually clothed. The momentary panic and love she always felt on seeing him was a constriction in her throat and she had no words of greeting, only dismay, for the black haired young thing hung possessively onto his arm. The young girl flashed a look of nervous defiance, staking her claim at the outset. So Hans too will soon leave me, she thought with a touch of self-pity. But the moment of fear passed and Hans put his comforting, familiar arms around her, thrusting a huge bunch of flowers at her. ‘Happy Mother’s Day, mother,’ he said.

Stories to Go 2: It ain’t over till the Fat Lady sings

I had never seen an opera before I came to Vienna. All I knew about opera was the quote above. This was the late 1970s and I did not then have Wikipedia to tell me that the quote is attributed to either US baseball player Yogi Berra or to sportswriter Dan Cook.

In any case, I went one evening in blithe spirits  to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera, to see Puccini’s La Boheme, expecting to have an experience that I would be mildly disparaging about later. If you are in your 20’s, short of money and long on energy, then the best way to see Opera in Vienna is to buy tickets for a standing place. Tickets were 20 schillings apiece, and their purchase involved standing in a queue for a couple of hours before the performance, in addition to the duration of the piece. From the vantage point of a lowly standing place ticketee, the Staatsoper at the time was tightly ruled by a bunch of brown-uniformed despots; doorkeepers and attendants who tried to uphold the dignity of the noble house by strictly regulating us slovenly tourists and opera novices. We were duly chastened for standing in crooked lines or for, God forbid, squatting on the floor to rest aching feet.

The prime standing places are located on the ground floor, at the rear center of the hall. The first 2 or 3 rows are coveted by music students because apparently this area has the best acoustics in the house.

At last, the opera began. The curtain went up. Mad, apparently bohemian, dashing about and singing. The sets and the lighting were beautiful. I ignored the high strung voices and admired the stage effects. Visually splendid show, I thought, but rather silly.

During Acts 2 and 3, my interest in the sets began to flag, and I listened to the singing. How absurd! They sing and recite lines to each other instead of talking like normal people. My mood is impatient and I am aware of aching feet.

Act 4: More singing, people come and go. I know Rodolfo well by now and rather like some of the singers and arias except when they go into singsong mode which sounds absurd. Enter Mimi stage left. She is obviously weak and ill, but still manages to sing with vigor. I get ready to snigger, but then something unexpected happens. Absurd though the exaggerated acting on stage, I get caught up in the sweep of the music. Mimi tells Rodolfo that her love for him is her whole life. They sing powerfully together some more. Mimi dies. Unexpectedly, I have been stirred by the music and my eyes are full, aching feet forgotten.

Years later, I went to live in Puccini’s Tuscan villa in a little village called Chiatri that lies in the hills between Lucca and Viareggio; a villa that was still owned by Giacomo Puccini’s descendants.. But that is another story… This one is a tribute to Mozart and appeared in a magazine called Vienna Life.


He was not in Vienna for nothing.  He was mad about Mozart, had been from the age of six when he heard the coloratura aria from an ancient TV rendering of the Magic Flute, accompanied by flimmering images of improbably costumed singers.  Captivated for ever from that moment, he listened to everything by Mozart he possibly could.  Seven years later the Queen of the Night descended to his pubertal bed on a staircase of song and he felt the flood  of bewildering panic that accompanied his first wet dream.

Now a young adult, he was intimately acquainted with the workings of computers, software, chips and other nonedible silicates. This newly acquired knowledge did not displace his boyhood adulation.  In contrast to Mozart in his productive prime, Vienna wanted him and he gladly accepted the offer.

In Vienna, he suffered at first from a surfeit of riches. There was so much going on all the time; culture pouring out of the woodwork, so to speak, in the many theaters and concert houses.  The old lady was a nodding acquaintance from the queue for the queue for first night standing tickets at the opera. They often stood shoulder to shoulder like soldiers marching into battle, waiting for standing place tickets, unsung arias in their hearts; undaunted by the large and threatening uniformed attendants of the house. The attendants eyed the waiting standees as husbands eye prospective ravishers of wives; jealously.

They stood for hours in the queue and talked about music. She knew a great deal, belonged to an old family of passionate Mozart fans.  How old is old? he asked, seeking enlightenment in the old world.

‘My grandfather came here long before the world war,’ she said, and the distant ring of her voice told him that it was the unnumbered one.  ‘He came into a small fortune and travelled across the continent to Vienna, having heard that some mysterious manuscripts had been discovered in the ruins of an old villa.

‘He was an expert, could perhaps decipher the scrawled signature, might from the construction of the bars and phrases of the music tell who the composer was.’ The young man was impressed and whistled softly.

‘No whistling in the queue, please,’ said the attendant.

‘What did he do for a living, your grandfather?  Was he a musician?’

‘Oh, that’s a long story.’

‘Well, we’re going to be in this queue for the next three hours.’

‘You wouldn’t want to hear an old woman’s improbable tale.’

‘I’m all ears,’ he avowed.

She was strangely reluctant to begin, but the queue was long, his legs ached and he insisted, wondering what manner of skeletons lay in her family cupboard.

‘You see, grandfather wasn’t a musician, but he knew a lot about people.  He felt that composers transmuted bits of their soul into music when they wrote their pieces.’

‘Rather like Einstein and relativity?’ he said brightly. ‘E=mc2.  Matter becomes energy; soul becomes music.’

‘I… suppose so,’ she agreed doubtfully.

‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t interrupt your story.  Your grandfather, you were saying…’

‘Yes, my grandfather was perceptive, something of a ‘kenner’ (a connoisseur) when it came to people and their motives.’

‘Like Freud,’ he suggested.  She was really annoyed.

‘They all relied on intellect rather than intuition,’ she snapped.  ‘My grandfather was long dead when Freud’s “revolutionary” theories gained wide currency.’

‘I won’t interrupt again,’ he promised humbly.  ‘Please go on.’

She gave him a belligerent look that made the steel rims of her spectacles glint like armour.

‘The manuscripts were discovered the year before the great war started.’

‘1913,’ he ventured.

She nodded, in approval this time.  ‘Yes, 1913.  The Titanic sank in 1912, the year that I was born, and the manuscript was discovered a year later.  The family moved to Vienna as soon as grandfather heard the news, of course.  There was a great controversy going on at the time.  Whose work was it really?  It was ascribed to several composers, but to relate the work to the style of any one of the major composers was extraordinarily difficult.  Grandfather was allowed, with some reluctance, to see the hallowed sheets of yellowed paper; he insisted on seeing the originals.  In those days there were no sophisticated chemical tests as they have now.

First of all he asked to be left completely alone with the sheets of music.  They hesitated; after all, these were valuable pieces of paper and he was a stranger, there was no knowing what he might do.  They finally allowed him five minutes alone with the papers.’  She went on to explain in great detail the tests he had made.

‘He held it close to his nose and breathed in the scents of the composer, traces of soul left behind on the paper.  It was extraordinarily difficult, he declared later.  Almost as though the music was written not by a man but by a ghost.  Sweat broke out, soaking his shirt and a few drops fell on the manuscript, smudging the precious scribble.

He carefully dried the paper and then called for a piano.  He wasn’t much of a musician, but he could read notes and pick out tunes, which he did.  You see, he was not searching for music in the notes, but for the soul of the dead composer.  When he played the first few bars, even with his inexpert playing, he knew it was music of extraordinary sweetness and purity, like all the colours of the rainbow transformed into sound, like fire and ice, snow and flame, rivers of molten lava meeting the sea, passions and great joys, everything that rages in the red-hot core of the earth and beneath the surface of human beings; everything was there in superabundance, an extraordinary smelter of sounds. It was mad, it was divine, it was frightening, the utter innocence and sheer insanity of it.

Grandfather gave a great cry and collapsed in a heap on the piano keys.  They heard the discordant notes, broke open the door in great alarm and found him, pale with terror, sweat pouring off his face in a gushing fountain, like water out of the rock that Moses struck.  He had fallen on the manuscript, obliterating all the notes.  They spent months reconstructing the original music, relying heavily on grandfather’s photographic memory, for he was the last one to have played the music.’

The queue had been moving like an engorged python, steadily but slowly in the direction of the box office.  At this point in her story, they were there.  The old lady stepped smartly to the window and bought her ticket.

‘Wait, wait,’ he cried in despair.  ‘You can’t go in now. I want to hear the end of the story.’

The attendant grasped him firmly by the arm.  ‘You have to buy a ticket and stop blocking the kassa.  And no talking inside. They’re performing Mozart today, not just anybody.’

Stories to Go 1: Being with Beethoven

When I came to Vienna in 1975, it was quite a different city. Its population seemed much older than it is today, and it was shrouded in an almost visible pall of nostalgia. The currency was the Austrian schilling. The EU was a mere blip on the horizon. Here’s a story that tried to capture the atmosphere of the place. It was published in an American anthology of short stories that’s no longer in print….


 Before he actually came to Austria and visited the city, he had not believed in its existence.  To him it was not a real place but a literary device, invented by writers of spy thrillers and musical fantasies as a background for their plots.  He came to Vienna in search of Ludwig van, as though hoping that some of the composer’s immortality would rub off on him.  He found he was a century and a half too late; but still clung on, trembling a little in every passing breeze, like an autumn leaf caught in an abandoned spider’s web.  He looked frail and infirm, but in reality was a sprightly old man; an iconoclast in his old age, wandering around the town looking for adventure, finding it sometimes unexpectedly; in the Volksgarten for instance, where a knotted gardener advanced on him like a house-proud hostess with a threatening shout: ‘Hey you, don’t walk on the grass!’  His helpless shrug and hands splayed in expiation did not appease that zealous keeper of the green.  ‘I never could levitate,’ he said by way of added apology.  ‘Ich hab’s nie gelernt, frei zu schweben.’

Or it might be the ubiquitous little old lady (like him, a dying species, he dispassionately observed), who objected to his nocturnal ramblings, his insomniac prowling around deserted city streets when all self-respecting citizens were in bed.  And his reply: ‘Ah, but who with?’ was met by a stare of unamused indignance and a slammed window.

There were many compensations.   He enjoyed quiet moments in his favourite cafe, where the smell of roasting beans clung to the faded velvet curtains with the tenacity of tradition; the welcoming smile as the waiter brought unbidden a cup of hot chocolate and his newspaper.  He was known here, and therefore he had a station in society; retired as he was, a distinction he did not take lightly.  He still clearly remembered the first time the waiter had addressed him as Herr Doktor, a smile of flattering complicity, not the least subservient, on his lips.  The complimentary epithet bound him to the coffee house for ever.  He knew from now on he would never patronize another.  To his tired old heart, it was as though he had found a second home.

In his first years here, finding his feet in this strange city soon after retirement, he had wandered around like a homeless waif, clutching a fistful of Reisefuehrers, Polyglotts, Baedekers, Fodor’ses, Harvard Guides, Berlitz Books, city maps.  He sought traces of his favorite genius in the dozens, scores, of buildings where he had once lived, for however short a time.  He sniffed the air around these buildings as eagerly as a young puppy, hoping to find some lingering traces of Beethoven’s presence in the air.  He wandered through the Stadtpark in the summer where the strains that waltzed through the crowds were of Strauss rather than Beethoven, and could hardly hide his bitterness and anger, the wounded sense of sacrilege, when the magnificent opening bars of the Ninth Symphony were used to advertise the efficacy of a brand of detergent.

Still he lingered in the city, buying a ticket to a concert here, listening to a new rendering of the piano sonatas there, spreading his arms out wide to clasp the elusive bars of sound to him.  In the old Gasthaus with its sooty, wood-panelled walls, chequered tablecloths and white-tiled ceiling, he imagined the hairy, barrel-chested owner’s ancestor serving the great man a schnitzel, together with a limp, pickled salad and a carafe of the strong, dry red wine that the penurious composer always downed with great enjoyment.

But time did not stop and exchange rates continued to fluctuate.   The value of the schilling rose.  When it rose it seemed to him as threatening as an advancing tide, cutting off his retreat to safety; and when it fell, he walked with pleasure and impunity by the edge of the sea, collecting the treasures revealed by the retreating tide.  His pension was adequate, but he had to to be careful.

In the summer now there were hordes of tourists, many groups of young people.  They swarmed and chattered in clusters, following the paths he had traced years ago; all hoping, like him, to encounter a wisp of genius, however brief the encounter; to inhale a trace of an ancient ambience, however musty the air.  ‘Sit still,’ he wanted to tell them with his hard earned wisdom.  ‘Sit very quietly and listen hard, or you won’t hear it.’  But still they thronged and chattered, and still they came, walking by the old man with hardly a glance at him.  ‘He’s a bit ga-ga,’ they said to each other, for he sat and stared at the empty sky with a smile on his lips.  They thought he was mad and avoided him, because they couldn’t hear the strains of the music.

Magnetic Resonance Coupling

100_0365 Major Innovations in transportation

Google’s driverless car has now clocked over 300,000 accident-free miles. Despite roadblocks, self-driving cars will be common within a decade. The next step: installation of magnetic resonance coupling infrastructure along highways and major roads. Electric cars will exit the highway fully charged and complete their journey on autonomous battery power.