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Waiting for Grace

Grace came from nowhere, caught me unawares, like when you’re sitting in a park totally engrossed in your whodunit and suddenly there’s a delicious aroma of baking bread, yeast and dough with overtones of garlic and perhaps the gentle bubble of melting cheese, sizzling oil and fat, and you wonder what else is in the pizza topping, book totally forgotten, and you remember that you haven’t had breakfast yet, only a cup of coffee and you came out of the house to run a couple of errands on a Saturday morning, wandered into a bookstore on the way home and found this book someone had raved about, bought it on impulse and sat down to read and then were lost in the murder mystery. Life’s something like that. Creeps up on us. The best lives are lived mostly unplanned. Correction! The best lives are planned and then lived with so many deviations from the plan so that we ultimately arrive at a destination more perfect than we could ever have imagined. Life is as perfect as you make it to be. No great secret here. It’s what you make of it. I know that. You know that. So how do I imbue Grace with that knowledge without preaching?images

Yes, Grace! There’s me on that metaphorical park bench, reading the metaphorical whodunit of life and then, like the waft of baking pizza smells, Grace sneaks into the corners of my mind, invades it with tendrils of soft enticement and then I’m completely lost, I have to type, to search, to pin down this elusive character who beckons with so much mystery. What is Grace made of? How did she come to be? She has certain powers; powers that she herself is not aware of, perhaps. So how does she comes to know her own power? Is she humbled by it? Do they, these powers, make her over-confident and over-reach herself?

So for a frenzied three months, I sat down and typed. I typed in the morning and I typed in the evening, sometimes late at night I woke up with a vision and I was Grace seeing the answer to a puzzle, a mystery. Who poisoned the harmless old lady’s friendly Jack Russell terrier? And why? And why was the old lady so sure the poisoning was deliberate? What a shock to find that on this idyllic, almost paradisical, island! It was an island in the South China Sea near Hong Kong, very hot, very steamy, and the writing was like an outpouring from a fever of the brain. But somewhere in the soul of the scribe sits a heart of ice that dissects and says, no, no; this is implausible, this cannot be true. But life is like that! Life often cannot be true, and yet these things do happen. Take the disappearance of MH370, for instance; the best aviation brains and experts in the world still cannot deduce what happened, or how; until recently, a bit of wreckage was washed ashore that perhaps will provide some conjecture of the truth. But a novel does not have this luxury. And so the fevered search for the soul of Grace continued.

More about Grace in the next post…

Volunteering for a one-way trip

Image: courtesy mars.nasa.gov

Image: courtesy mars.nasa.gov

Two years ago I wrote a short story called Enigma. It was a rather bleak story of a group of adventurers who volunteer for a space mission to the Red Planet, knowing fully well that they might never return. The story was prompted by a news report that more than 150,000 people had volunteered for a one-way trip to Mars, offered by a group that calls itself Mars One. At the time I wrote it, the story seemed (even to me) hopelessly fatalistic, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of space travel, so I included it, with some hesitation, in my last collection of short stories (see The Ironwood Poacher and Other Stories). I tried to put a positive spin on the fatalistic elements of the story by hinting at some kind of a superior intelligence or presence that shows that the indomitable nature of human striving is not futile, that it is a quality to be nurtured; a quality that has rewards beyond death as we know and fear it.

Imagine my surprise when I read an article in Time magazine this morning entitled “Why I’m Volunteering to Die on Mars,” about a young woman named Sonia van Meter. Sonia is one of the Mars One finalists (100 have been chosen from more than 200,000 applicants in the third round of the selection process), and she gives her reasons for wanting to go on a one-way trip to Mars (planned to depart every 2 years, beginning in 2024).

Here are some of the reasons Sonia (who is married and has 2 step-children) gives for volunteering for this mission. Space exploration is worth a human life. Every astronaut that has ever flown has known the risks they were up against once they strapped into that ship. And there’s no guarantee that I won’t be crushed by a collapsing roof tomorrow or diagnosed with a terminal illness next year. Some call this a suicide mission. I have no death wish. But it would be wonderful if my death could be part of something greater than just one individual. If my life ends on Mars, there will have been a magnificent story and a world of accomplishment to precede it.

To know more about why Sonia, and hundreds of thousands like her, who volunteer for such a mission, read the Time article here.

See more books by this author here.

Why do I write? revisited.

A short story deals with a tiny slice of life on a local scale but can, like a hologram, contain the big picture or illustrate universal themes. A novel does the same, but tries to give the hologram greater depth and detail. In choosing new fiction, a prospective reader looking at an unknown author can decide based on the genre: crime, thriller, romance, sci-fi, and so on. For an author who explores the world and writes stories that do not fall into any of these genres and therefore classes his work as “literary fiction”, the task of finding a readership is close to hopeless, given the number of fine writers and superb new books that appear online and in bookstores every day. It takes a certain stubborn foolishness to attempt to do this. On this count alone, I consider myself eminently qualified to be a writer of literary fiction. The rest is up to unknown readers out there to take a risk and invest some of their precious time reading a new author’s work.

I am keenly aware of this formidable entry barrier and therefore grateful to several unknown reviewers and three friends who have taken the time and trouble to write a total of (currently) fourteen four and five-star reviews of my three books on Amazon’s various sites and on Goodreads.

Napoleon Hill, in concluding his famous self-help classic “Think and Grow Rich” quotes Emerson as he states: if we are related, we have through these pages met. So to those many unknown reviewers I say, we have, through these pages met, and I am honoured to make your acquaintance. This is why I write. It is you who make the work worthwhile.

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https://www.amazon.com/author/aviott

Ironwood Poacher and Other Stories

Finished at last! A collection of ten short stories that will appear in print in early November, around 48,000 words. Anyone willing to proofread the final pdf of the MS in the next two weeks, please let me know. You will get a free dedicated copy of the book after final publication as a thank you. The Afterword from the volume that follows below says a little bit about each of the stories, but is meant more as a background narrative of the circumstances in which they were written, rather than as a synopsis of the stories themselves.

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The Ironwood Poacher: In December 2012, a young woman and her male companion were attacked in a private bus on the outskirts of Delhi. The man was beaten with a metal bar and left incapacitated while the girl was brutally raped and then seriously injured in a frenzy of bloodlust as an aftermath of lust. The case attracted wide media attention and struck a chord in the hearts of millions of urban middle class who were shocked that such a thing could happen to one of their own kind. When the girl died of her injuries thirteen days later, there was an outpouring of grief and violence nation-wide. The mass protests and agitation in urban centers throughout the country were an expression of anger and disbelief that the nation that nurtured Gandhi and non-violence could harbor individuals like these.

Indeed, in 2005, one month prior to Hurricane Katrina, the city of Mumbai experienced unprecedented and disastrous flooding. In contrast to New Orleans, however, the Mumbai floods were not marked by social disorder and violence, but by widespread acts of generosity and altruism. Based on such experiences, the complacent Indian view was that the “Third World-ness” of megacities like Mumbai and Delhi was a positive thing; a virtue that excused the country’s sadly crumbling infrastructure and made it bearable, because it did not have the “culture of violence” found in American cities.

Of course, this complacence was totally delusional, since anyone who cared to look found inescapable signs of the most egregious exploitation everywhere. And behind the exploitation exists systematic violence and intimidation. The people who bear the brunt of this bad treatment are the poor and the disenfranchised, in urban centers of course, but more so in the countryside. Most of these people are voiceless in the media, so their stories are rarely told. The Ironwood Poacher is an attempt to tell such a story.

India is a very large, teeming country, so it may come as a surprise to many middle class Indians living unthinking, sheltered lives in a comfortable cocoon with servants at hand to cater to their needs, to know that violence is deeply ingrained in this society. This violence has many roots. Deeply held beliefs and gender bias, the caste system (especially in rural areas), and the tremendous disparities in income.

The Ironwood Poacher was written long before the Delhi outrage happened, and was prompted by observations of the everyday tyranny of low-level government officials abusing their power. There is plenty of opportunity for petty officials in every town and village, themselves poor and underpaid, to abuse their power, sometimes with the collusion of local landowners or upper caste supporters. So the tribulations of Neela, the poacher’s wife, are played out in thousands of variations across the country daily and weekly, these stories barely making the pages of the local or national news. What is remarkable amidst all this human misery is that retaliatory deeds like Murugan’s happen so rarely. That is one of the true miracles of India, and probably the most positive attribute of the deep spirituality widely evident wherever one travels in the country.

The Flood: The European Union is an unprecedented, brave and bold experiment by thirty-odd countries venturing into uncharted territory. Many economists have predicted that the experiment is doomed, and there is no shortage of possible reasons for failure.

Critics fail to recognize that any bold experiment can fail. For example, the dollar was chosen to become the monetary unit of the United States in 1785, nine years after the declaration of independence.  The coinage act helped put together an organized monetary system in 1792. The Federal Reserve Act was passed only in 1913, organizing a national banking system and a central bank, nearly one hundred and thirty years after the dollar was chosen as its currency. And this delay occurred in a vast country only slightly smaller than the area of the European experiment.

Small wonder that populations in EU countries have misgivings about the wisdom of their leaders’ attempts to stabilize the common currency and dispute the need to support the economically weakest members of the union. The Flood is a parable on the need for myths to weld communities together. In the case of Europe, the common roots doubtless lay in ancient Greece and Rome, ironically two of the most economically troubled states in the current union.

Cassie: In the 1990s I was fortunate to have an almost brand-new car to make a long journey across the United States. The car was a driveaway, a one year-old, two-door, cream-colored Cadillac Eldorado hardtop with very few miles on the clock. When I picked it up from an upmarket address in San Francisco for delivery in Miami two weeks later, the owner handed me the keys and papers and said, “I’ve had the car serviced. There’s a full tank of gas, so you shouldn’t have any problems. Here’s the address where the car has to be delivered in Miami.” I handed him the papers from the auto driveaway agency to sign and he did it without bothering to look through the document. Liking his casual, trusting manner, I decided to be up-front with him.

“Look,” I said. “I’m a tourist and I’d like to see as much of the US as I can. The agency said that normally coast-to-coast delivery times are ten days. I’d like to make some stops along the way. Do you mind if I take longer?”

“Sure,” he said at once. “Keep it for longer if you want. This is my mother’s car, and she’s moving to Florida to stay with friends after my father died. She won’t need it for the next four weeks.”

“Thanks very much. That’s very kind of you. One last thing. The agency said I was to inspect the car with you for dents or damage before you fill in and sign this piece of paper to confirm the car’s condition.”

“The car’s in good shape,” he said. “Here! I’ll sign the blank form now and you can fill it in if you find anything you want to note down.” Disarmed and made speechless by the man’s trust and generosity, I wordlessly took the keys and drove away without bothering to fill out the form.

Twenty-four days and four thousand miles later, I had a similar pleasant experience at the other end. I called the Miami number I had been given in San Francisco, and a friendly female voice asked if I’d had a comfortable journey and then gave me detailed directions for the drive to the house.  I parked in the shade of a tree-lined driveway and was welcomed into a comfortable living room by a gracious gray-haired woman in her sixties or seventies who patted my hand as I gave the keys and offered me a drink. I chatted with her over coffee and she was very interested in my impressions of the USA and the places I’d seen along the way.

I offered her the agency form to sign before I finally rose to leave. This was to confirm that the car had been delivered to the owner in good condition and ensure that I got my deposit back from the driveaway agency that had insured the risk and helped me find the car.

“Won’t you come out and take a look at the car before you sign?” I asked. She looked at me briefly.

“Did you have any problems on the way?”

“No. The car’s almost brand new and it ran beautifully.”

“Then I don’t need to look at it. I’ll sign that paper for you. Make sure you’ve taken all your things out of the car,” she added as she walked me to the door. I was doubly glad then, in the face of this gentle generosity that, a short while earlier, I had stopped at a service station to have the car shampooed and polished to a high gloss before I returned it with a full tank of gas.

As I rode in a cab later that day to Miami international airport and the flight home, I thought about the countless acts of everyday kindness and trust encountered along the way across America. In a sudden flash of insight, I realized I had stumbled on a principal source of America’s greatness. Something beyond the wealth of nature’s bounty that this nation enjoyed. Trust. Pure and simple. When there is mutual trust among large segments of a population, and rule of law, civil society will flourish. The increasing levels of mistrust and suspicion implied by the gun culture today, especially in the aftermath of nine eleven, does not bode well for America. It implies a gradual diminution of the national store of goodwill and a proportional crumbling of trust.

Contrary to popular myth, there was plenty of good food in small-town America, not just fast food but wholesome fare at reasonable prices in diners and family-run eating establishments throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Staying overnight in a run-down motel east of a north Dallas suburb called Plano, in a nameless little town beside a picturesque stream, I was woken at night by a fierce argument between the couple in the room next door. Objects large and small were thrown about, harsh words were spoken, and the next morning I glimpsed a weary couple check out just before I did, with two small boys in tow.

I went into a roadside diner for breakfast an hour later, and there was a foursome, the father from the motel with the two boys, but instead of the bleary eyed wife I had seen earlier was a pretty young woman who was obviously adored by the boys. Cassie’s tale was born on the drive from Plano to New Orleans. The ramshackle motel became Cassie’s little house and the picturesque stream beside it was where the boys caught their fish for her.

So absorbed was I in the birth of this story while driving that I did not remember to set the Cadillac’s cruise control to the speed limit, and the speedometer needle inched up from sixty-five miles an hour to seventy. I ignored it, thinking five mph over the speed limit was negligible. I was wrong. Not in Texas, as opposed to the adjacent state of Arizona where large trucks seemed to ignore speed limits with impunity. A few miles later, I noticed a car with a flashing blue light behind me. I waited for it to overtake, and when it didn’t, I ignored it for a while until a short wail of a siren told me I should stop.

The police car pulled over behind me and a policeman in uniform with a hand on his holster asked me to lower my window and remain seated. He came up, saluted, and asked for my papers.

“Sir. You have been driving for the past three miles at sixty-nine miles an hour. Why didn’t you stop when you saw the flashing light?”

“I’m sorry officer. I thought you’d overtake if you wanted me to stop.”

“Where are you from?” The tone is incredulous. I tell him.

“We don’t do that over here,” he explained. “My partner was shot last week as he approached a car to check a driver’s papers.”

“I’m sorry. I had no idea…” He looked mollified, and then asked what was in the trunk.

“I don’t know,” I said. “This is a driveaway, and the owner asked if I’d mind if the trunk was filled with his mother’s things. She’s moving to Florida,” I added, seeing the officer’s skeptical look.

“Please open up the trunk.” His hand was on his holster again. I depressed a dashboard button and the entire front seat began to incline backwards. The second button brought it back to rest. The trunk lid rose slowly and majestically in response to the third one I tried, the policeman sternly watching my antics all the while. I got out of the car and saw that the trunk was full, as the owner had told me in San Francisco. My small suitcase rode in luxury on the back seat of the car and I’d not bothered to check the trunk’s contents.

“What’s this?” He pointed to a large cardboard carton that looked like a typical box of detergent.

“Detergent, I hope,” I said, opening the carton. It was filled with a fine white powder. To put it mildly, my heart sank. He put a hand in to take a pinch between two fingers, smell it, and touch a fingertip to his tongue.

“Looks like detergent, smells like detergent, tastes like detergent,” he said, lightening up with a sudden grin.

“Phew.” I was truly relieved. “What would have happened if that powder hadn’t been detergent?” The policeman smiled a grim smile.

“You don’t even want to think about it,” he assured me. “I’m going to let you off without a fine today. But no more speeding in Texas.” With that he saluted and went on his way.

Maestro Ladrini’s Villa: Another day, on another continent, driving between the walled city of Lucca and Viareggio in Italy, there is a small turning to the right that leads up into the surprisingly steep hills and a dusty village called Chiatri. A little beyond Chiatri, at the end of a curving driveway, stood an imposing villa with wrought iron gates, and a private orchard. I drove up to the villa and the door was opened by a handsome woman in a maid’s uniform of knee-length black dress with a brief frilly white apron. She wore dark stockings and elegant black shoes. This was somehow not what I expected from a two-week holiday rental in Tuscany, but the address seemed correct.

“Si?” she said imperiously. I stood on the porch like Johann Strauss, the writer of westerns, and stuttered in broken Italian that I was looking for a rental villa where I was to stay with friends. She pointed imperiously to a round stone tower behind the villa.

“You have to take the road behind this house.”

Later, sitting with Italian friends over a meal of wild boar and polenta at a neighboring farm, I was told that this area was a favorite haunt of the great composer Puccini who liked to hunt and drive fast cars along these narrow roads, so we could imagine him sitting down to enjoy just such a meal as the one we were having.

The story of Maestro Ladrini was an amalgam of all the impressions gained from this holiday; the magical Tuscan countryside, the patrician villas, the dry heat, and the excellent food. I never saw the stately housekeeper at the villa again, but it was not far from Chiatri to Torre del Lago and the lake itself was often referred to as Lago de Puccini instead of by its proper name, Massaciuccoli. We learned later that the stone tower into which our two comfortable holiday apartments had been adapted was the former servants’ quarters of the adjacent villa. Perhaps the Maestro really did live in the villa once.

Heavy Duty: If the Ironwood Poacher gives readers a totally negative view of social conditions in India, Heavy Duty should go a little way to improving it. Rural life is not all abject poverty and social misery. People are people everywhere, and live and laugh and love just the same on all continents.

The Orbs of Celeris: Many arid parts of North Africa and the Middle East were poor for centuries, until oil was discovered and they became fabulously wealthy. Thoughtful people in these countries know that this new wealth cannot last forever. Sheikh Rasheed bin Saeed al Maktoum, who is responsible for the economic transformation of Dubai, has been famously quoted as saying: My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel. As some energy specialists point out, however, this insight applies not only to citizens of oil rich nations in the Middle East, but also to everyone else. Fossil fuels are finite, and they cause enormous environmental damage at the current scale of extraction and use.

If the initiators of Desertec and other like-minded projects have their way, oil-producing desert kingdoms will flourish again, this time fuelled by the sun. Vast swathes of desert covered with photovoltaic modules and mirror arrays, focusing light on a heat exchanger to produce concentrated solar power, will provide electricity for continental markets through a high voltage direct current grid. That is the plan. There is much that can go wrong before these great plans come to fruition; not least the current widespread social and political uncertainties in the region.

At another extreme, in the far north, similar potential exists to generate electricity that can power the world economy and save it from the environmental consequences of excessive dependence on carbon based forms of energy; coal, oil and natural gas. In these latitudes, the potential to generate electricity lies in the wind and the waves. There are northern isles where onshore and offshore wind farms could today generate sufficient electricity to power a continent, but here again, it is not likely to happen. Why? NIMBY (Not in my back yard), unwillingness to change, fear of visual pollution of landscapes, forgetting that the very landscapes they wish to preserve are themselves the product of centuries of transformation, that some of the landmarks so cherished are themselves the result of human action.

The Orbs of Celeris is the story of a dreamer, a Don Quixote who tilts, not at windmills, but at established mores. Ironically, the lance in this tale is a windmill. The story ends in tragedy, but in real life perhaps it will not. Only the future will tell.

Macawley: The old adage says: if you stand at New York’s Times Square long enough, the whole world will walk by. Macawley explores the truth of that saying. On a trip to New York years ago, I was asked to drop off a package at a Manhattan address for the friend of a friend. I accepted, with some hesitation. In retrospect I am glad I did. Otherwise, I would never have met the person who is called Mrs. Macawley in the story. It’s an author’s privilege to dissemble the truth that is stranger than fiction, and it is for the reader to decide what is truth and what is fiction in the story.

Conception: And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. These words from the Nicene Creed are repeated countless times in Christian liturgy and represent the mainstream definition of Christianity for most Christians. One reads that in both Christianity and Islam the second coming of Christ, sometimes known as the parousia, is the anticipated return of Jesus to earth.

In the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles, it says: Now when they had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw him go into heaven.”

It is also widely believed that history does not repeat itself. But what if it does? Conception is a playful investigation of what the second coming could look like in the twenty-first century.

Enigma: On September 12, 2013, BBC News reported, “Voyager I has become the first manmade object to leave the solar system.” Scientists calculate the moment of escape to have occurred on or about 25 August 2012. The two Voyager space probes were launched in 1977, and their primary mission, to study the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, ended in 1989.

According to Mars One, an organization that has been calling for applicants to make a one-way trip to Mars, more than one hundred and fifty thousand people have expressed their willingness to make a one-way trip to the Red Planet. Organizations like Mars One and the Mars Society show that there is plenty of public enthusiasm for space exploration, and Enigma was a result of this realization.

A Night at the Taj Mahal: An estimated 1.7 million engineers graduated from India’s 3500 colleges in 2013 alone. Apart from the fifteen percent graduating from top tier colleges, most of these young men will struggle to find a job. In 1964, employment prospects were also bad, but the number of job seekers was nothing like it is today. The population was around 450 million, less than half of what it is now. Nevertheless, the economy was developing at a pedestrian pace in 1964, and as access to medical care and food distribution became more equitable after independence, birth rates also shot up. It is in this context that the sixteen year-old protagonist of A Night at the Taj Mahal tries to find a shortcut to a University education and the secure employment that is presumed to come with it.

Aviott John
Hong Kong
October 2013

https://www.amazon.com/author/aviott

Stories to Go 9: Ernest in the Lobau

The land is flat and stretches for miles in every direction. I take a sip of my beer and nod my head. ‘It is good beer Karl,’ I say. Karl nods and takes a big gulp of beer and the foam spreads over his lower lip and his blond moustache.

‘Yes, it is good beer,’ he nods again

The summer sun drenches our skin with light and heat just as intensely as the short, sharp shower soaked us an hour ago. Now it is gone, the shower and all traces of it. Except for the steam that rises from the ground. The ground is soft now but soon it will become hard. As hard as the bicycle saddles. Soon the saddles will also become harder and then it will be good to find another Gasthaus in the woods like this one. It is good to rest, to take our weight off the saddles. It is luxury to stretch.

In the wind the smell of the bird is strong. It is a good bird, I know. Come to Papa, I whisper to the bird. The bird does not hear, for the bird is dead. But the waiter hears. He sees the cry in my eye even if he does not hear me call to the bird. He comes to the table,and it was as if I had called to him saying, ‘Come to me, Bird.’

Or as if he were the bird and had heard the cry. But the bird did not hear. For the bird is dead. And its calling is a silent call to my nostrils. And a call to my taste buds. My taste buds answer and I feel the good saliva on my tongue. Strong and sweet at the thought of the bird. I called to it and the waiter came.

‘A beer,’ I say to the waiter. ‘A big beer for me, and one for my friend here.’ Karl nods in agreement. ‘A big beer for my friend and one for me,’ he says. He nods again at the kitchen and the scents that waft over us. ‘That smell,’ says Karl. ‘I’d know it anywhere. It is good. The smell of chicken frying. Frying in batter and bread crumbs. Frying to a golden brown in much hot oil.’

The waiter nods gravely and looks at us with respect. ‘You are right,’ he said.

I nod at him, understanding. ‘The bird is good. The bird is for me.’ I look at Karl and I raise my eyebrows at him. Karl smiles, for he understands too. ‘And one portion for my friend too,’ I say as an afterthought and we both laugh, for I have read the thought in his mind, and the thought is: the bird smells good.

It is always so with a good bird. First the smell of the cooking, and then the appetite. The appetite that has a mind of its own. The appetite that takes on the life of the dead bird and wafts on updraughts of air, breathing freedom. And Karl and I inhale the scents of this freedom and know that the bird is for us. It was a big bird and now it is a dead bird, and the bird is for us. That is the law of nature. The law that we must follow. And we follow it.

Today we will eat the bird, and today the bird is good, the big, dead bird. And Karl and I are full of the knowing of the goodness of the bird, our plates are full of the deadness of this bird. And the cooked smell of its deadness wafts up to us from our plates. I look at Karl and Karl smiles at me.

‘Skol,’ he says, for his full name is Karlsson and Karlsson is a Swede and all Swedes say Skol before they drink. I do not know why this is so, this saying of Skol, but it is so. ‘Prosit,’ I say, for we are in Austria and this is a bicycle path in the Lobau. We are on a bicycle path in this wooded area so close to the city of Vienna, not in the vast distances of Karlsson’s native country. But Karl does not think like that, so he says Skol and not Prosit.

In the Camargue, where I ride the white horses and the horses are wild, I would have said ‘Salut.’ But we are in Austria. So I say ‘Prosit.’ Karl smiles at me, chewing on the bird, and I see that he does not understand. But that is all right because Karl and I are friends. On days like these, friends will forgive each other anything, and it is good to be alive. There is the clear light of the day, the secret of the path as it winds through woods, past fields that smell of upturned earth. The river rushes close by, the Danube, the brown, forcefully flowing Danube.

You don’t see it most of the time, but you know it is there. Like a friend. Like I look down at my plate and see only the bird. And I don’t look at Karl but I know he’s there.  And there is goodness in the knowing and in the eating.

Soon we are done and it is time to go on. The bird and the beer are mere memories now, like the remembrance of old friendship, like the sweet, sad song of past love. It is time to go on. The mud on the ground dries in the sun. The ground hardens under the blaze of the unforgiving sun and it is time to get into the saddle once more. It is good to know that the path goes on, and we must follow it. All the way to Passau in Germany if we care to follow it. It is a good path and our way ahead lies on it. And Karl and I are friends, and our friendship is good, and we will follow this path where it leads.

(With apologies to Hemingway. As always, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery)

Stories to Go 7: Far from Iowa

It is not difficult to find hospitality mostly everywhere in Greece as long as one avoids the peak tourist seasons. Newspapers have been full of the Greek financial crisis in the past few years and ‘expert’ commentators writing about it often imply that the Greeks are shiftless and have only themselves to blame for the current situation.

Visiting Greece as a tourist, I have mostly met hard-working people; hard-working, resilient and hospitable. Some of the most enjoyable moments have been random encounters that surmounted language barriers. So instead of thinking about whom to blame for its current problems, here is a reminder of the countless spontaneous acts of hospitality and kindness that makes a visit really worthwhile; that briefly, or permanently (as in this case) changes one’s view of a people. Perhaps it is also a timely reminder that quality of life and economic prosperity do not always go hand in hand.

FAR FROM IOWA

‘Something’s got to happen today!’  It was a plea addressed to the heavens, to a Superior Being she did not really believe in.  And yet, in the silence that followed she thought she heard the faint trace of an answer.

She raised her head to the blue sky in confusion and heard the wind soughing through the tall grass that grew by the roadside.  The road ran straight for a distance and then began to curve its way up a hillside into a tapering point.  Beyond the first low hills was a snow covered mountain.  Sun and blue sky all around her, that was fine, but snow she had not expected, did not fit in with her image of sunny Greece.  Crete.  Big island.  The Greek Navy and NATO had hogged the finest spot; the beautiful natural harbor and most of Souda Bay were off limits to tourists; clusters of sleek gray destroyers and other warships mottled the aquamarine Sea of Candia like patches of an early carcinoma. Beyond the field of grass was a grove of orange trees, late April, and the fruit almost ready for plucking.  Fiona shouldered her backpack and left the road, walking through the grass, springy underfoot and accompanied by the tiny buzz and hum of hundreds of invisible insects.  As she approached the orange grove, the heavy aroma of ripening fruit was overpowering, such profusion that there was no question of not taking a few.  Not to be too greedy, only half a dozen, wrapping them in her scarf and then cascading into her rucksack.

The holiday was unlike anything she had anticipated, also a plethora of firsts.  First time in Europe.  First time away from her family.  First trip alone.  The first time in a country where they spoke anything but English, listening to the Cretans talk among themselves, spending hours in their cafes sipping from glasses of amber Nescafe, milkless, cold and frothy.

Maybe it was just as well that her best friend Moira could not come and had cancelled at the last minute.  It was good to experience everything alone; the strangeness, the foreign-ness of Crete. Good, but a bit lonely.  Walking through the mountainous parts of the island she had seen women in black riding donkeys, quaint, like extras from “Zorba the Greek,” and she half-expected to see an unshaven Anthony Quinn saunter round the corner.  But the women frowned at her, as though she were trespassing on their territory.  People living in isolation are bound to be hostile to strangers, she thought as she descended to the coastal plain.  Besides there were not too many places to stay higher up and it got very cold at night.

In the villages by the sea, which tourism and progress had developed into noisy towns, the problem was quite different.  There was too much traffic, too many discotheks and bars, hustlers’ English spoken everywhere and little flavor of being in Greece, except that the hamburgers left a lingering taste of lamb, sage and wild thyme, and the bread was unsalted and chewy.  In one of the coastal towns some young German tourists accosted her, attracted by her dark curls and hook-nosed beauty, but she shook her head with the hot-tempered pride inherited from her Irish-Ojibwa forbears and left them far behind with her long limbed stride.

Now she was nearing one end of the island and, God, it was a long way to walk and she was fed up of her holiday.  This was no way to enjoy Crete, slogging alone on foot, from one end of the island to the other.  A beautiful island, true, but progress was simply too slow and she had only another six days left of her fifteen.  Roughly half the nights spent in cheap hotels and the rest camping under the stars.

As she walked she ate one of the oranges and looked out at the sea.  The road climbed now and she took a hunk of bread from her backpack and chewed slowly.  To her right the sand and shingle lined beach, scrub running up to the road.  To her left, a hillslope of red earth, a bunch of olive trees, leaves rattling in the breeze like ancient bones or a child’s box of sea shells.

‘Something’s got to happen today!’  Fiona repeated her morning’s plea and again it was as though somebody or something heard and laughed at her.

‘Loneliness plays strange tricks on you,’ she thought as she walked on determinedly.  She heard the sound first, like the buzzing of insects when walking through the grass, only sharper, angrier, a shade metallic.  Then in the distance the trail of thin blue smoke.

The man parked his Vespa, gray, almost white, covered with a fine coating of dust the color of his hair.  Wearing a patched black fishermen’s jersey and white cotton shorts, sockless feet in unlaced canvas shoes, gnarled veins standing out on stringy calf muscles.  Anywhere between sixty and seventy.

‘Poulose,’ he said.  ‘Speak English?’

‘Of course.’  What a question!

‘You like Crete?’

‘Yes,’ she lied.

‘You like fish?’

‘Yes,’ she admitted, surprised at the question, wondering what was coming next. He beckoned economically and, to her own surprise, without thought or contention, she obeyed, climbing onto the narrow pillion.  The Vespa buzzed and they soon left the road, descending by a dirt track to the sea.  Around a corner of headland the unexpected sight of a tiny bay walled off from the sea by an irregular pile of granite blocks.  In this tiny man-made harbor a fishing boat rode at anchor.  It was the boat of Fiona’s dreams, painted blue and white, the canvas awning that covered the wheel flapping at her in friendly fashion.

To the left a two room house, little more than a brick walled shack really, but there were fetching signs of domesticity; a fresh-swept front yard bordered by flower beds filled with small yellow and purple blossoms; two tiny tan colored mongrel puppies growling over a fish’s head; laundry flapping on a sagging jerry-rigged line; grain and olives drying on a mat in the sun; a narrow bench and a table with a chopping board, kitchen knife, two aubergines and a zucchini; a toddler splashing in a pint size bathtub; two cats admiring themselves beneath geraniums in pots on the window sill; the smell of cooking from the open door of the tiny kitchen-cum-living room.

‘Athinai!  Athinai!’  The man hollered through the open door, motioning Fiona to the bench in the shade.  Athinai, grey haired and stout, encased in a dress of Mediterranean blue, waved and smiled at Fiona.  Poulose went indoors and Fiona imagined them discussing her in incomprehensible Greek.  The woman emerged with a plate of olives, a bottle of white wine and three glasses.  She filled two glasses, handed one to Fiona and raised her own.  ‘Is Ichian!’

‘To you!’ said Fiona and emptied her glass.  It was a retsina wine and had a bitter-sour taste of pine resin.  She took an olive from the dish while the woman refilled the glasses.  After the olive the wine tasted much better and she sipped from the second glass with more enjoyment.

There were sounds of frying in the kitchen and after a while Poulose emerged bearing a large plate of small fish fried to a crisp in olive oil.  ‘Marides! Marides!’  He pointed to the fish and took one himself.

‘Kali Oreksi,’ said Athinai, or something to that effect.  Fiona took a small fried fish in her fingers and bit into it.  Warm oil spurted from the fish and filled her mouth with its rich olive sweetness.  The two cats temporarily abandoned one form of self interest for another and began to circle around the bench.  One of them purred and rubbed itself ingratiatingly against Fiona’s shins.

‘Hoi!  Hoi!’  Athinai chased the cats away with a couple of well aimed olive stones.  She turned to Poulose and spoke briefly. Poulose went into the house and brought a small basket of fresh white bread.  He cut five thick slices on the chopping board with the kitchen knife and handed one to Fiona.  Fiona followed their example and mopped up the remaining bits of fish and olive oil with the bread.  Meanwhile Athinai had finished slicing the aubergines and marrows into thin slices and disappeared into the kitchen with the chopping board.  The toddler began to cry and Poulose lifted the child out of the tub, dried and dressed him in red jeans and a blue T-shirt.  Fiona wiped greasy fingers on her jeans and helped Poulose with the child.

‘Grandson,’ he said proudly.  Fiona smiled and nodded her pleasure.

‘What’s his name?’

‘Costas.  You what name?’

‘Fiona.  My name is Fiona.’

‘Fiona?  Fiona.  Fiona.’  He tried the name on his tongue and nodded.

‘Where from?  United States?’

‘Yes.  From Iowa.’

‘Iowa?’  Poulose laughed and lifted Costas in his arms.  ‘Crete far from Iowa.’

‘Yes,’ said Fiona contentedly, chewing an olive and taking another sip of retsina wine.  ‘Yes.  Crete is very far from Iowa.’

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.

MOTHER’S DAY IN LEOPOLDSBERG

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.

MAD ABOUT MOZART

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….

BEING WITH BEETHOVEN

 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.