Thursday, February 25, 2010

Daughters, Mutters, Grandmothers

After I posted my sad little confession about how much I dislike downhill skiing, I got a whole bunch of very nice electronic messages in solidarity. Over and over, I heard “yeah, I hate to ski, too.” I also learned that there is a real name for what I called “snowsickness.” It’s plain old vertigo, but a winter rather than an Alfred Hitchock sort, caused by something called “flat light.”

So now I know. I was quite relieved to discover that I am not left alone with the poofy-haired Lodge Moms in hating on the sport everyone else finds so cool. I’m also not alone in this weird form of nausea.

It’s nice not to be alone. But quite frankly, the very best day of my vacation was the day I was. It was the first day I have spent truly alone in longer than I can remember – at least since mid-summer.

But first I had to earn it. I had a little mothering to do, trying to do what I could to heal my sad littlest girl. Back in late January, laid low with that rotten cold, Abigail had started to fall apart into sick, homesick shreds of her former self. We plied her with the comfort foods she begged for, we got boxes and boxes of macaroni and cheese in the mail. But nothing really seemed to work. She would rally a little, then sink into a sullen funk. She was needy and difficult in hairpin turns, spending a stretch of time huddled under my wing, and then turning on a dime to spit anger my way. She was excited to see Milena, a real-live American friend, but knew she had no choice but to be a third wheel in the situation, relative to her inevitable nemesis/companion Grace.

So after our day at the big fancy ski resort, I decided to spend a few days indulging her little-girl whims on her terms, rather than forcing her to fall in line with the team. I mean, we robbed the poor kid of her whole world – couldn’t I give her a few days of getting to set the agenda? I flattered myself that perhaps I could rescue this vacation for her with a little Mother-Daughter time. Because, as I learned from my own wise mother, there is almost no form of distress that can’t be ameliorated with a little shopping and a nice hot lunch.

So Abigail and I took two days off to do nothing but what she thought would be fun. We walked to the mall and bought some small plastic toys that she seemed to desire more than life itself. Never one to forget to share her good fortune, she also carefully selected presents she knew Grace would want for her birthday. We ate at Burger King (her choice), where even though I spaz-spilled an entire cup of coke onto her pink snowpants, (they don’t put lids on the soft drinks at Euro-BK) she forgave me, then relished every last one of her King Pommes.

Later, we went back to the warm, cozy room, where she spent a solidly enraptured three hours playing with her spoils – Poly Pockets and Littlest Pet Shop figurines – while I read. I can’t say for sure which of the two of us enjoyed this most.

Following this good long stretch of quiet, we decided to try a little skating. The man renting skates and shoveling snow off the ice was the only person I encountered in Austria who didn’t speak Tourist English. Even the Burger King counter-person’s English was way better than my French. I was able to rent us some ice-skates using only my fingers, plus "danke," ("thank you") and "bitte," ("please," or maybe "you're welcome")* and the numbers one through ten, which I can’t spell properly, but pronounced as my grandmother taught us, as her grandmother would have: ein, svi, dri, fear, fimf, sex, seben, oct, noin, and zane. I ordered "dri-fifmf" skates for Abigail, and "dri-oct" skates for me, and lo-and-behold, they fit us both just fine. Happily, Euros are Euros in most Europlaces (except Switzerland, with its dollar-sized francs, and England, with its heavy pounds of sterling) so our buck fifty held up just as well at the Austrian rink as it might have back here in Aups. We had the rink to ourselves, and circled there, happy as little frozen clams, in a soft, slow snowfall.

The next day, we went further into the city, wandering aimlessly in and out of the little tourist shops, pondering in turn an Alpine hat with a feather, or a Norwegian sweater, or a bravura display of cuckoo clocks. Provence’s shops of this sort have invented tons of ways to package and sell things made of olive, lavender, and honey. Austria’s shops all specialize in things that are best described (all apologies to any Austrian readers and friends out there) as twee. Little wooden dolls with long braids. Smiling dog puppets. Edelweiss embroidered on an astonishing array of items. It was as though The Sound of Music had exploded due to the force of its own raging earnestness, spattering beagle marionettes, chintz pinafores and little leather shorts with suspenders all over the insides of the shops.

We were particularly taken with the store, right on the main square, that sold beautiful, high-quality Heidi wear. Should you wish (and we did, if only fleetingly) to dress yourself in a lace-up bodice, a flowing velvet cloak, and a long dirndl skirt, this would be the place you could do so, at the highest quality, and for a seriously pretty centime. While I can’t for the life of me say why they might, men could choose to get themselves up like Robin Hood or William Tell. But based on the fact that this store was so definitively in business, I had to imagine that somewhere, somebody must be wearing super-expensive leather shorts, getting married in a medieval princess wedding dress, or otherwise impersonating the salt-of-the-Earth Tyrolean royalty of the vague pre-modern past.

I learned later that there is an entire industry devoted to the design and creation of this stuff, known as “Trachtenmode.” But other than the older citizens walking through town dressed almost exactly like my German-American grandparents, all in loden wool tweed and Bavarian hats, the rest of the Austrians we met dressed just like regular old Americans. Thin Americans, mind you – but otherwise, Americans.

You would never mistake a standard-issue gaggle of French people (even if they were being quiet for the moment and you didn’t hear them speak) for Americans. The Swiss we saw were a little too well-put-together to be schlumpfy Americans. And while the Italian rest stop we visited might as well have been Bay Ridge, the people there were still notably different from the white folks you might see shuffling through a mall in suburban Ohio.

Not so Austria. First of all, the Austrians greeted our eyes, and smiled, for no reason in particular – aside, perhaps, from their feeling pleased about their nation’s per capita GDP of $43,570 a year, and their score of .955 on the Human Development Index, just a thousandth of a point different from the U.S. score. The Austrians did their hair in American-looking ways, particularly the middle-aged women, who all seemed to have adopted the same short permed pouf sported by American moms of a certain age and upbringing. They wore jeans and sweaters and sweatshirts with their sneakers. They wore nondescript winter coats, and could easily have passed for the Caucasian demographic of standard-issue Pennsylvania suburbanites. I guess it’s only in their dreams (or on YouTube) that they reenact their noble heritage of shepherding and hiking in full Alpine Tracht, topped with one of those cool hats with a feather.

But I digress. I was going to write about the day I spent alone, in my own snowy Alpine fantasy, decked out in my own fancy outfit of black polarfleece, head to toe.

But in case you were still worried about Abigail, I’ll let you know that these two days of quiet, doing nothing, were just what she seemed to need. After a lunch of salmon (her favorite), after I let her win about eight-hundred games of Pippi Longstocking Concentration, after many, many hours of snuggling close to my side, and many other hours of her playing with her little plastic figurines, she had righted herself.

So well that on that our last day in Austria, when the bright sun came out, she skipped off with the ski-studs to do some more downhill, and I hopped a postal bus to Mutter Alm, where I hoped to ski on my own terms. On the horizontal.

When I was in elementary school, in the years leading up to Lake Placid’s hosting of the winter Olympic games, my whole family was caught up in a totally uncharacteristic sporty impulse, to learn cross-country skiing. I can still picture the skiis under the tree on Christmas morning, and how excited I was to stick the funny stiff boots onto those three little metal spikes, snap down the lever to catch on the metal prong, and start off around the cornfield. It seemed to take forever for me to learn to lift my heel and kick-glide, kick-glide along, rather than trudge, trudge, trudge. But once I got the hang of it, I realized that I had found an extremely rare phenomenon: a sport that I enjoyed. Loved, in fact. Adored.

I can’t explain why, exactly, but while every other sport I tried made me break out in anxious hives, this felt peaceful, soothing. Even fun. A few years later, I won the only athletics-related trophy of my life, a first-place in the Galway Winter Carnival cross-country skiing race for girls my age (I even beat the one boy who entered the race, believe it or not. Sorry, Kevin: I’m sure that was embarrassing for you.) During the years I taught at a certain sports-powerhouse urban high school with an entire room dedicated to its tireless pursuit of big shiny trophies, I used to keep the pint-size statuette on my desk, as a little joke at my own expense.

Anyway, I love cross-country skiing even more than I hate downhill. Still, since I was setting out for the first time in a new place, with hardly any information, and no language skills at my disposal beyond the words for one through ten, I bumbled through the usual comedy of errors on my way to an actual groomed trail.

I set off towards the bus station, and nearly ran smack into a woman who might as well have been my German-counting Grandmother, Elenora. Elenora was not Austrian, but rather German-American to her core. But somehow, she shared a wardrobe, a hairdo, and a tidy, sturdy physicality with the old woman sweeping the snow on the street just down from our hotel.

Then, as I walked on a little further, there she was again, in yet another wool blazer, a cardigan sweater and sensible A-line skirt. This time she was striding purposefully, doing her marketing and wearing a Tyrolean hat. I was cheered to see her again (it has been years since any of us were able to see her in real life) and this made me suddenly even happier to be in Austria.

Like the guy at the McDonald’s counter, the bus driver spoke terrific English. I must have asked him sixteen times whether I was headed in the right direction. He was a young guy, not more than 25, with a top-quality Upstate New York mullet haircut. (Business in the front; party in the back.) He was endlessly patient with me and with the two Japanese tourists who shared my concerns. Again and again he went out of his way to promise me I was on the right track. We chugged up the switchbacks through Natters (translated as “Snakes”) to Mutters (“Mothers.”) I swear I am not making up these names, paired Biblical metonyms for earthly evil, and earthly good. Both Snakes and Mothers were adorable little towns with carved wooden balconies and pretty tromp l’oeil murals on the walls.

Sweet Mr. Driver dropped me off at the base lodge of Mutter Alm, the resort that had been advertised online as having Nordic Skiing. And in fact, there in the open field below the ski lifts was a series of groomed trails with a few people kick-glide, kick-gliding around.

The man at the rentals place spoke great English, but just shook his head sympathetically when I asked about Nordic skiis, then mimed a little kick-glide and pole action by way of further explanation. Nothing doing, nope, nada. Out of luck. So close, and yet so far away. And no, he had no idea where else I might try.

I dashed back out to the bus, hoping to catch the nice young bus driver who had been so reassuring, before he drove back downhill. I was ready to head home to Innsbruck to spend some more time cruising the Tracht stores, if that’s what fate held in store.

He looked at me with curiosity as I tried to explain my predicament, and then frowned, his brow furrowing with concern, as though I had been seriously wronged. He actually turned off his bus, hopped out of the door, and started jogging for the door of the rental shop. Before I could tell him no, really it was OK, don’t make such a fuss, he was championing my right to rent skiis. He and the rental guy went at it, chattering along in German, trying to work out exactly how I might be granted the precise sort of pointy equipment I desired.

(Just as an aside: I cannot possibly imagine a random French stranger jumping in like this to come to my aid. Last week, when I lost Abigail’s coat in Quinson and walked around the town the next day looking for it, I got only bored annoyance from the shopkeepers and museum people I politely queried for assistance.

You could put it a different way, emphasizing that the French excel in laissez-faire, and the Germanic peoples can be a little too bossy in their “helpful” attitudes. Still, I was quite touched on this particular occasion to have a Knight-in-a-Shining-Mullet come to my aid.)

Still, despite his righteous intervention, the required equipment was not to be provided at Mutteralm. I had seen a rental shop down in Mothers, and I asked him if I might try that, since it was on the way back down anyway. He invited me to hop back on the bus (for free, saving me the 2 euros 30) and then dropped me off, helpfully pointing me down to the place by the fountain where the road curved downhill.

I set off, all hopeful, almost whistling as I walked. It’s amazing how carefree I can feel when I am lost on my own, when I am not overwhelmed by the sensation that I’m falling down an endless flight of stairs, dragging my poor children along behind me. When it’s just me fumbling around, the stakes drop enormously. I don’t have to worry about somebody suddenly demanding a bathroom at an inopportune time. I can get by all day with the one Twix bar in my pocket.

As I walked and whistled down the street, there she was, again. Grandma Elenora sweeping another sidewalk in the tiny town, just up the street from the churchyard where one old man was getting ready to bury another. The still-living old man was digging the grave with a tiny backhoe just like the one Grandpa used to have. The churchyard was frozen solid, and the backhoe scraped into it and slowly pulled out a pile of dark earth, bit by bit. Above him, above us all, the green church spire pointed straight up to the blue heavens.

The store I had seen earlier turned out not only to have cross-country skiis, but also to be staffed by exceptionally efficient people who spoke Tourist English and Tourist French in addition to their regular old German. I was grateful not to have to use Grandma’s numbers to get the right size, and was even more grateful to be in and out in ten minutes, kitted out with the latest in funky Nordic boots. As pleased as they were to give me my sticks and hold on to my hiking boots for me, they were a little vague on where exactly the Mothers-to-Snakes trail might be found, and sent me up to the Tourist Office.

Which was, of course, closed. Why might the Tourist Office in a ski town be open on a Friday morning in February? I wandered around town, toting my pointy sticks, and happened on a big map posted on a wall. I located a few promising-looking trails, but my nonexistent map-reading skills made it awfully hard for me to imagine how I might find them, relative to where I was standing. When finding my way, I have ready access to left, right, up and down. But not so much to North, South, East or West. So if the map happens not to be facing the same way I am, and also to be lying on the ground, I might as well be looking at patterns in tea leaves to find my way.

I picked a likely direction, (LEFT!) and started off. The first Austrian man I ran into smiled (thanks, Austria) so I asked him if I was heading the right way to get to the skiing trail to Natters. He pointed back the way I came. I tried the direction he suggested, but the road seemed to have no relationship to the map I had seen. I walked down the street, past a cowbarn, towards an open field. Upon reaching the end of the houses, I just decided to strike out on my own, as though I were ten again and back home, circling the rows of harvested corn stalks.

And suddenly there I was, back in the kick-glide, kick-glide. I reached out with my poles, pushing forward. No scary ski lift. No teenagers zooming by on their snowboards. Gravity held me to the earth, but didn’t seem too greedy to have me go anywhere I didn’t myself choose to be. I frog-kicked up the little hills, then went straight down (still plenty slow) the other side.

The snow wasn’t too deep, just enough to keep the skiis off the ground and slipping along. In the bright sunlight, huge crystals glittered in the snow. I pushed along in a rhythm, eventually finding the old track of someone else who had had my idea a day or so before. I followed my imaginary friend across the field, down a little hill, past some woods, and towards a set of train tracks. Just as I approached the tracks, a tiny red tram appeared out of the empty woods. It was the same tram as the ones downtown, puttering slowly through the trees way here up in the hill.

How cool is a city where you could hop on a tram downtown, carrying your skiis, then hop off in a snowy field a half hour later? These people sure know how to commute. I kept going, striking up a hill alongside the tiny road, going nowhere. The tall green spire of the church in Mothers was back behind me, and I assumed it was as likely as anything else that I was headed toward Snakes, with or without benefit of a cleared trail. It’s not like if I went off-piste I would tumble off a foggy cliff.

I forged along a track of my own making, generally as uphill as I could go. I vastly prefer the feeling of working my way up to the loss of control of heading down. Close to the top of one hill, I saw through the treeline another open field ahead. I took off my skiis, hopped over a tiny running stream, and pushed through the pines.

Coming out the other side, I looked up to see, in a field eighty times bigger than Dad’s old cornfield, a wide and groomed track, with three or four other skiers scattered around its edges. I crossed the narrow country lane, walked past the little shepherd huts and the big wrapped bales of hay, and zipped down to the groomed trail.

If Grandma had in fact gone to Austria when she left us, I can see exactly why she would have chosen this as her particular vision of heaven. The field was ringed by tall fir trees rising up to one side, and by Alps on the other. A low band of clouds sat bunched around the sides of the mountains, and as the sun burned it away, the mountains gradually revealed themselves from the top down, jagged tops first. I moved faster: kick-glide, kick-glide, but not nearly as fast as the Austrians who would now and again come up behind me and kick-glide past. Most of them, mind you, were in their sixties at least. But I was alone. In the sunshine. In the mountains, on a trail that somebody – some Mother or some Snake – had groomed just for me, just so.

I spent a few hours out there, not worried about anybody else’s demands or feelings or fears. The track spun out ahead of me. I passed more barns, more trees, and then a little roadside shrine sheltering an icon of the patron saint of something or other. Just behind it was an enormous tower carrying high tension wires. If I stood in just the right place, I could make the tower into a steeple for the shrine, lining up the two forms of higher power. Off in the distance, I started to see the spire of the church in Natters, the green sibling of the blue one back where I began. I curved around towards town, took a long hard look at another utterly unhelpful trail map, then started back, following the groomed trail, then the trail I had made in the morning.

I slid down the slope I had climbed, back into the field. I took the skiis back off and walked back past the cowbarn. The grave was dug now, the pile of earth at its side covered in a tidy piece of astroturf. It was waiting for the body who would be brought to this place of rest, just outside that church I imagine he had attended all his life. The same Elenora-alike had finished her sweeping, and was sitting in a chair in the sunshine. She nodded me another good day, then we both looked together up at the blue sky, at the mountains and the trees and all that glittering snow.

I had all but forgotten the time, so I didn’t know that I had just missed the bus down the hill. I didn’t know that it wouldn’t actually have mattered anyway, since the store where I had to return my skiis and retrieve my boots was closed and locked, and wouldn’t open again for another hour or so. I didn’t know that my back would go into angry, open revolt the next morning, no doubt to punish me for forgetting I am 40 and out of shape, for pretending I was 10 and invincible. I was happy to see her. Happy to have spent the day outdoors. Happy to be alone in a place like heaven.

*thanks to Paris Jessica for fixing my German as well as my French.


  1. Hooray! What a beautiful day!

  2. I'm not a skier either. I have never, ever even put skis on my enormous feet - I wouldn't embarrass myself in Europe by trying to find women's shoes or boots in a women's size 11.

    But I would love to have had the adventure you described so well: a day alone. time on the bus in a beautiful place. time with helpful strangers coming to my aid. time to see the same woman over and over. time to breathe free and think only of my own desires and the path I wanted to travel. what a glorious day!!! Good for you.