I had passed through Hitler’s hometown before I ever got out there. In a heat wave in August 2015 a Hamburg gentleman of about sixty spotted me at breakfast in Vienna, applying a serviette to my face. He came over, hoarsely repeating the German word for hell. Hölle! Hölle! On the train to Salzburg that day my mother and I got talking to a retired American couple who’d sold their house in upstate New York to move to Florida. I think Bob sold his mass of Waterford glass in the house on eBay. His wife had fallen off the train that had brought them as far as Linz. I didn’t ask why they had come by Linz. They were thinking of squeezing in the Sound of Music tour, despite the lack of enthusiasm of the holiday planner, their daughter.
We left our Salzburg hotel two mornings later. In the station a black vintage train pulled up at our platform. Uniformed serving staff jumped out to unravel short rolls of red carpet below each carriage door. Who could these passengers be? They were Australian casualties from Linz. They had to be practically carried off. One old lady was handed down a set of wheels like those that belong in a nursing home. The next woman out that door was a bit younger and had better pins but she sported a broken arm.
I got off in Linz that December. Down past Hauptplatz the bridge over the Danube crosses to the Urfahr end of the city. The car lights on the bridge shone through the murk as an icy mist blew up from the water.
Heading back to the main square I found a small and dark pub down a long tunnel that is typical of Upper Austria. The pretty young blonde behind the counter didn’t know what a hot whiskey was so I had a few bottles of Weizenbier instead. My eyes at times were stinging with the smoke, long banned in Ireland, as the place filled up.
The guy next to me at the counter wouldn’t have looked out of place among the crew of U-96 (Das Boot), down with all the scraggy beards and hunted eyes. He said the informal people of Upper Austria hadn’t much use for Sie, except with Polizei und Richter (police and judges). He ordered something that looked like a grilled slice of a large brown loaf, with some pizza toppings. He told me what it was called (Holzknecht) and then I had it too. It was a traditional meal for poor people working in the woods.
The next night saw a different barmaid there, a dark-haired girl with what I thought were some Italian features but also with rather exotic eyes. I got talking to a bespectacled young darts fan who was only into the darts on TV because some Austrian had qualified for the last whatever of the world championship. He wasn’t the only person during this trip to ask. Warum Österreich? As for why Austria, I paraphrased a quote from the actor Christoph Waltz.
Austrians tend to make their lives easier, so first of all they are very polite and second they don’t mean it… The difference between Austrians and Germans is very much like Irish and English.
In Michael Frayn’s Travels with a Typewriter, the penultimate piece finds him in Vienna in 1975. His acquaintance there with a mathematics student from Berlin “outraged by all this charm” makes him consider “these two German worlds” but the effort to reconcile them in his head proves disconcerting. Frayn is, after all, English, and the irony of Austria can be rather more spiritually familiar to an Irish person. That’s if it even bears thinking about.
On the subject of the unwillingness of the Irish to step beyond the English-speaking world, economically or culturally, it is true that most of them would rather go to the end of the world, say to some wasteland in Australia, even though Paris, for example, is just an hour from Cork. Then again, most cannot even be bothered with their own language.
One night in July 1961, Samuel Beckett’s Marne cottage at Ussy was the scene of a robbery. The burglars, as well as consuming all the food and drink they could find, stole his clothes, even his old underpants, but left a valuable painting untouched. As Beckett himself had once mused, in Murphy (1938), who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand? If any mystery haunts any cynic, it’s probably this one.
Michael Frayn also discusses the word Schlamperei (‘messiness’), which he often overheard in Vienna but which, in Austria, he observes, could only be in its infancy in comparison with Britain. Well, that’s something the English and Irish can and do share. Austria is clean. Aristocratic titles have furthermore been banned there since 1918 but Austrians compensate for this deprivation with comically excessive use of academic ones. Some people even use a different calling card (e.g. one that uses “von” in the name) when dealing with Germany, where such elaboration remains legal.
The down-to-earth impression made in contrast by Linz that first time brought me back for a couple of days in October 2017. While we were enjoying coffee and dessert in the elegant Café Traxlmayr at lunchtime, a pair of retired ladies chatting intently over a couple of tall beers attracted the attention of my wingman (JP).
Fair play to the two old dears, tanning the pints in the middle of the day.
Linz is also a handy base for visiting very scenic places like Steyr or, in Bavaria, the town of Passau. The Inn is very scenic near Passau. High wooded banks continue for several miles. The warm sunshine there contrasted with the fog in Linz. Having gone down the left bank of the Inn to the peninsula tip where it meets the Danube, we walked back through the Altstadt and had a good goulash at a place called Bi Plano. It got cold at sunset but there were orange blankets on the backs of the chairs. Passau is very like Steyr but it’s a college town, whereas Steyr is known for making tractors and guns.
The train in 2015 had reached Steyr before dusk, having followed a bend on the Enns that there meets the river that gives the town its name. This place was like a fairy tale town. Schubert loved it and wrote the Trout Quintet there in 1819. Empty dark alleys were less spooky than dreamlike. There were seagulls there, in a landlocked country. The wind off the rivers was icy.
At a pub by the name of Sir Patrick, one had to press a buzzer to be let in. There, an inquisitive but very inebriated Opel agent of about sixty was unimpressed by any mention of Ireland. Sepp later gave up insisting I was an Englishman, also in the motor trade (“Du bist Agent?”) for the suggestion I was from Norway. A taxi finally took him away but not before he also enquired if I was looking for a fight (“Willst du kämpfen?”), though not necessarily with him.
Back in Linz after Passau, JP and I ended up in the small, dark place once more. The girl with the striking eyes was behind the counter. They were green; interesting; hard to read. A local Celtic fan with communist leanings told me her name. She wasn’t Italian. She became someone I would always know. I took a photo of a young chap buckled at a table where she kindly left a pint of water.
JP had earlier observed him sucking on a thick cigar, though the electric fan in the pub did make the smoke a lot more tolerable than it used to be. Another lad, who looked like an Arab, wanted travel advice about Ireland. He wanted to visit Kilkenny just because he liked the beer of that name.
On the train to Vienna in the morning, a row developed between the couple sitting at the table across from ours. She was on the phone for a long time first, a good-looking girl with faintly Asiatic features. Russian, I guessed, from a few words I could make out, such as mozhnó, droog and rabot. When he wasn’t eating (an apple, a banana, other stuff) or sleeping behind a hanging jacket, he spoke to her in English and his accent was Germanic (i.e. Austrian).
They had a weekend engagement in Vienna, so flowers and a present had to be bought for their hosts, but first he wanted to deposit her at the Albertina while he walked around for a while. Unfortunately for her, it seemed he intended for her to carry three bags around while at the museum. “I’m shocked,” she said, several times. She also observed that he was “the man in this couple”, which had Mr Sensitive asking how she managed whenever she was on her own. She countered with “But I’m not on my own now” so he offered to carry one bag.
When the train stopped at Wien Hbf he told her there was no need to get off immediately because it wouldn’t move on towards the airport for a few minutes but she really had heard enough by then and left the scene. He reluctantly followed. There would be nothing happily ever after in that relationship. She’d also got in a dig about him always finding the time and opportunity to eat, so it sounded like she was quite familiar with the various ways he would suit himself, if given half a chance.
Several times I went back to Linz to see the soft-spoken girl with the green eyes. The young man from Vienna who sat beside me on the next plane referred to it as an untypical destination. He added he’d been to Ireland sixty times through work. At the Hotel Wolfinger my fourth-floor room overlooked the Hauptplatz rather impressively. I could hear a clarinet by one of the cafés below my window. The trams rolled up and down through the long square with a steady rumble.
From the steps around the Trinity column, the girl pointed to a special little train idling nearby. Nächstes mal. Next time, we’d be running up that hill. The next time we took that little train up to wooded Pöstlingberg and wandered around there for an afternoon. It was a bit windy but we got something to eat and saw some deer up close. They were in a kind of dry moat. The little stag was munching leaves unperturbed, up by the fence, while the others came and went via a nearby slope. The eyes were wild. One of the lads from a nearby tree surgeon gang then threw the stag another branch of leaves.
She laughed when told about the whispering Americans on the train, the time I came via Regensburg in Bavaria. Ja is the German for yes, right, so what’s Jawohl? One of the two women across the table said she’d get a translation on her phone. A mechanical voice then broadcast, Jawohl! Jawohl! to the entire carriage before the phone screen coughed up the meaning. The two women went on to talk about restraining kids but it seemed to be part of their jobs.
It was a quiet Sunday night where she worked, the night an old nutter with a cravat and smelly feet marched in with his sunglasses on and started causing hassle about the service, the drink and the music. Diese Musik ist Gift für mich! Poison it may have been to him but it wasn’t even loud. Feeling a mixture of irritation and gallantry, I used du when telling him in exasperation to leave the girl alone and wait for his Guinness to settle. In a how-dare-you tone of voice he announced he had a doctorate (“Summa cum laude” blahdy blah). When I said that so did I (“Ich auch”), he then said he had two of them.
Then he called the cops to report the impudent Gast at the counter but he quickly paid up and fled when she told him she’d had enough of him and called the owner. Then two cops walked in, so we had to do a bit of explaining. Anyway, the Polizei seemed to be familiar with this character and they soon left us in peace. We did a gentle high five before she observed the nut-job wasn’t as bad as the Nazi who had thrown a pint over her, some other night.
It wasn’t the only place in Linz where I saw someone get barred. In Thüsen Tak the metal from the speakers was generally boring but it wasn’t too loud. One entrant to the pub was refused service. The rather pissed but well-dressed, middle-class gentleman was in a better state than many drunks at home. All he did to cause offence was bow extravagantly to the rockers at the low tables but, anyway, a good suit must be the new long hair, to be met with a frown and expulsion.
From midnight the other place often got busier as the smoke got worse. A Bono-loving lush wanted me to go on to a club. She insisted Austria was full of Nazis but I said so was Ireland and maintained Bono was a tax-dodging Heuchler, whereas at least Falco had never droned on about Africa.
The last time I made it to Linz, it was January and the landscape in Austria was snowy and icy. On the train an Elvis impersonator – der König – sat down with his kit bag nearby before I moved to the dining car, where the low drone of a deep American voice was a constant. It went on and on about a cookery class. The man’s hair, like the King’s, was a mite darker than it should have been at his age.
Having checked into the hotel, I had to get something quick to eat. The cold froze my arse in a heavy snowfall on the way down Landstrasse to the famous Bosner Eck hotdog stand. The lights of that long street looked wonderful through the brief blizzard but I was almost sick with the cold. Back at the hotel I donned a pair of pyjama-style long-johns before heading to the pub.
She had put a Reserviert card at my favourite end of the counter. It was there that weekend that I enjoyed a long conversation with a Stammgast named S., who remarked on the way she smiled when she looked at me. As the crow flies, Linz is a thousand miles from home. She had cooked for me and she had served up Holzknecht in the bar, and she had given free shots of tequila, but, in calmly letting her get on with her life in a land far away, it’s still best to remember some words of Pozzo in Waiting for Godot.
I have given them bones, I have talked to them about this and that, I have explained the twilight...
Anyway, S. told a story about getting his own back on some Russians who had spiked him with gherkins injected with vodka by spiking them with an Austrian elixir called Sturm, which also acts as a laxative. This was in the context of a major deal to build some heavy industrial plant in Ukraine. In his workplace he was “Herr Doktor”, of course, though he did amusingly describe the German managerial habit of shouting as useless for Austrian productivity. His face dropped a little only when I included Mauthausen in the list of all the Austrian places I’d been. Normally I omit that but this time I threw it in, for the hell of it.
On one of the trains I’ve taken out of Linz sat a retired nurse. After I put her heavy bag up on the rack we chatted all the way to Vienna. Her husband, a railwayman, had died in 2010. Her parents came from Steyr. She said they had never bought into the Nazi thing and added that her father had taken pleasure after the war in reminding those who did that they had done so. In Austrian culture it seems no one admitting to have cheered Hitler on Heldenplatz in Vienna in 1938 is the other side of the comic coin of the Irish all claiming to have been in the GPO for Easter 1916.