Salzburg. Hail rips through the clouds and ricochets through the crack of the window, bouncing across the kitchen floor. I sit in the middle of the room, windows before and behind, waiting for the pot to boil, waiting for my body to settle into this place.
The sadness is greater here than it was in Scotland, since the break was so recent and under such unfortunate circumstances. Karl, my grandfather, moved here as a barber in 1935, and met and his wife-to-be, Emma, shortly after. Daughter of a tailor, sister to four sisters and three brothers, Emma worked in the dim light of the family home under the direction of her difficult father making jackets for the German army. They were Catholics, not Jews, which made them poor and safe. For young Karl and Emma, the future held hope and promise, a chance to move beyond the poverty of their upbringings. The German takeover of Austria meant that Karl was obliged to join the Nazi army, postponing their plans to marry. He was sent to the front line in Russia, where the fleas ate at his skin and no effect of layering his Fall-issue uniform could keep his body from freezing in the long winter of the war. He said he aimed to miss. He shot until he was shot in the arm, then in the ankle. I wonder if his arm was in motion at the time, waving the slow, white flag of surrender as the bullet passed clean through. A channel flooded with blood and carried him away, finally, from the front line that never advanced past Stalingrad. But when it was over and done and Karl had returned home to Emma, not even the joyful event of their first daughter could instill hope in him again, the refuse of the war too thick in his mind. Always, there was another enemy around the corner to take it all away anew. He was a frightened man, never sure of his decisions, and it was Australia first that promised to relieve his post-war anxiety, then later, Canada, the shore of Vancouver.
Karl Thüringer is gone now from this world, having passed slowly after the death of his Emma. But he brought me here, years ago, and showed me the way the city unfolds from the stones of the Mönchsberg, how it’s avenues pass like arteries through the buildings of the old city, how the beer foams up to its one-litre lip, how to shop, how to sit, how to enjoy einen kaffee. Looking around, I am again pestered by this question of why?, the maternal echoing the paternal of weeks ago. Why? presses hardest when there is something yet attractive on the left end of the migration. Salzburg is a quaint, small city, full of friendly people and surrounded by a haven of mountains. It contributes a unique expression to the Austrian façade, and has it’s own dialect and sensibilities. It is not Vienna, not Germany, it is itself, a place rich in music, fashion, celebration and the great outdoors. Why leave?
I find myself suddenly bored with this line of questioning. What is the fascination with nationality in the first place? What is it about the past that begs to be inhabited (in some small part) by our memory? Why do we North Americans continually iterate our ancestry, as if by rote we’ll be able to claim the particularities of the culture of our ancestors? Who cares? Why does it matter? Why is it not enough to be from Winnipeg? Why must I be from Winnipeg-Abbotsford-Vancouver-Austria-Scotland?
In a time where experience and perspective collaborate to render everything meaningless, one must wear the khaki shorts and headlamp of discovery and mine a personal context from the lands of the past, where a hazy record or incomplete history may be found, claimed and registered as simultaneously mysterious and sure in one museum stroke. The other option is to simply be from the colony, which is to live with guilt, whether or not your forebears are directly responsible for the atrocities of land appropriation and cultural rape that characterize Canada, and which are still perfectly visible in many cities and towns, including Winnipeg. To be from Winnipeg is to hide one’s gaze under a wide-brimmed hat. It is to pretend the land only surfaced from the deep blue sea moments before the European ships meant to disembark. Conversely, to be from the motherland of continental Europe or the British Isles is to have these atrocities drowned in the waves of distance, to maintain ground, to maintain ground. To shrug. To stay at home. To move on in much the same manner as before. Perhaps we claim a motherland to assuage the guilt. To be misplaced, rather than than the displacers. Yet surely the motherland bears its own guilt, and there is no escape from it, like there was no escape from anxiety for Karl. When seen from a grand scale, from has its repercussions, and the reality of our time is that people move around, making the f-word even more commonplace.
There is more to the day than a fierce and moody storm. Out the window, the clouds have moved on past this Alpine hamlet and the hail blankets the ground like Spring snow. At the least, there are forts. Small homes that play with the temporary nature of dwelling, even of nation. I can say I have lived above the underground diversion in a nest of cogs and gears, and under a canopy of textile clouds on the promenade of Franz-Josef Strasse for the amount of time it takes to say I am here. And I guess for these intents and purposes, that is enough.