Little Girls and Old Ladies

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu2/2/15
This was my first trip outside Vienna since I’d arrived in Austria, to study German, some two months earlier. I chose to visit Salzburg because of its well known cultural heritage, plus it was Mozart’s birthplace. Traveling alone, I had the opportunity to practice my German, while I wandered through the streets and explored the well known sites of the beautiful city.

For a former music student, the cathedral where Mozart had played, as an employee of the archbishop, was a must see. The old town with its many narrow lanes was full of charming shops. The most delightful of these were the Konditoreien. These were combination confectionary-pastisserie-coffee shops where you could sit and drink coffee, eat cake and read a newspaper all day without anyone pressing you to hurry up and pay your bill. As for the sweets, I especially liked the “Mozart Kugel”, which had nothing to do with Mozart. But a chocolate ball surrounded by marzipan dipped in more chocolate was worthy of the genius’ name.

Of all the wonderful sites, I found the Burg, the massive old fortress perched on the side of a mountain, to be the most impressive. In its day, it had been an impregnable citadel. Large enough to hold the entire population of medieval Salzburg, it contained everything needed to carry on with life while holding off would-be conquerors during a siege. For me, the tour of the Burg was, itself, worth the visit.

After leaving the Burg, I strolled through the streets of the city for some hours.  In time, the lengthening shadows told me it evening was coming, so I needed to find a place to spend the night.   I jumped onto a streetcar, not exactly sure where I wanted to go.   At the back of the car, I bought a ticket from the conductor who was sitting in  a type of cubicle,  which separated him from the passengers. I asked him if he knew of any “Pensions” or inns nearby.  Shaking his head, he apologized and said that he didn’t.

A little girl, about ten years old, had been observing this exchange.  She had short brown bobbed hair, neatly combed with a floral headband on top of her head.  Her dark blue dress, which looked like a school uniform, was perfectly ironed and starched with a white bib from the neck to the waist. She wore polished black shoes over spotless white socks.  On top of this, she wore a dark green Tirol style Loden overcoat. She was a fusion of beauty and innocence which one only encounters in pre-adolescence.  I gave her a smile and she shyly smiled back.

While wondering where I might find a place to stay, there was a tug on my sleeve. I looked down and the little girl was still holding it when she said, “Excuse me. Are you a foreigner?”  I chuckled when I replied, “Yes, I am.” It was pretty clear from my accent that I certainly was, but the little girl was being polite in face of the obvious.

She then said “I heard you speaking with the conductor about a place to sleep tonight.  I wanted to tell you, we take in boarders.”  This surprised me, and I became a bit more serious. I asked her if she was sure about this. Nodding her head she confirmed she was and said, “Oh yes, my mother is a good cook and housekeeper.”   Wanting to be certain, I again asked “Are you sure your mother won’t mind?”  The girl responded immediately saying “Oh no, she won‘t mind, our house is very near. We need to get off at the next stop and it’s only about five minutes walk from there; please come.”  Needing a place to stay, and thinking that on basis of the little girl’s appearance and behavior she must come from a good family, I accepted.

We got off at the next stop and walked, side-by-side, toward the girl’s house.  Along the way, the girl asked me where I was from, what it was like there, and such questions one often hears as a visitor to another country.

Although it was not yet four pm, the sky was beginning to darken and it was noticeably cooler than an hour before. Daylight is fleeting in a European winter.

After about five minutes, we turned into a side street and the little girl pointed toward a woman standing in front of a nearby house and said “That’s my mother!”  We approached the woman and the girl blurted out “Mutti, he’s a foreigner, can he stay with us?”  The woman glanced at her daughter and then at me with a puzzled look.   I realized immediately something was amiss and that the woman didn’t know what to make of the situation.

Before she could say anything, I explained how I had met her daughter on the streetcar and that she had told me the family took in boarders, thus my appearance at their front gate.

A look of relief came over the woman’s face. Now smiling, she said “I’m sorry, we don’t take in boarders. I don’t know where Anna got such an idea.”  The little girl blushed at hearing this and said “But Mutti, I told him…”

To avoid embarrassing Anna or her mother any further, I cut in “Now, now, Anna you heard what your mother said. I can find another place to stay tonight. Don’t worry about it. In any case, I would like to thank you very much for your help.”  I patted her on the head and turned to the girl’s mother saying, “I must apologize for any trouble I may have caused.  It was clearly a case of Anna wanting to help someone in need. You have a sweet child you can be proud of.”

I said “Auf Wieder Schauen” and was about to walk back to the tram stop when the woman said  “Please, wait just a moment.  We don’t take in boarders, but the people next door sometimes do. If you will come with me, we can go over and ask them. Anna, please go inside”.  Before Anna could leave I held out I hand to her, which she grasped and shook like an adult.  Again, I thanked her and watched her disappear into the house.

Anna’s mother and I went to the neighbors’ house and knocked on the large wooden door.  An elderly woman who must have been in her seventies opened it.  She was about 5’3” neither fat nor thin, with white hair pulled back from her face and pinned in a bun. Anna’s mother explained what had transpired and asked whether or not the old lady might have a spare room for me.  “Certainly,” she said.  To Anna’s mother she further said “No problem; I’ll take care of everything.  Thank you for coming by.”  I thanked Anna’s mother once more and, after she left, I never saw her or Anna again.

Closing the door, the old woman asked me to follow her.  The house was immense.  Large gray slate tiles covered the floor.  The walls were white washed and spotless.  I followed her up an enormous spiral staircase stopping on the third floor. She took a key from her pocket, opened a door and motioned for me to enter the room.

A large double bed, with two huge down pillows, stood against the wall.  This was covered by a thick goose down comforter. The white sheet underneath the comforter was turned down forming an eight-inch border.  There was a large wooden wardrobe and a thickly cushioned chair; both looked like antiques, but in excellent condition.  On one wall there was a sink with a mirror above it. On another wall was a crucifix.  To the left of the sink was a window niche about three feet wide and two feet deep. Lace curtains covered the window itself.  On the window ledge there was a small potted plant. The room was immaculate.  It was just what one would expect from an Austrian Hausfrau. It even smelled clean. Not like disinfectant, but like sun and a meadow. In short, it was perfect.

The old woman asked if the room was acceptable and I energetically responded, “It is fine.”  I then asked, “How much is it per day?”   She replied, “One hundred and ten schillings, including breakfast.” (This was about          US$6-7.00, as I recall.) She gave me the key and told me breakfast was served from 7 till 10 am.

With that she left, closing the door behind her.  I put my shoulder bag on the chair and unpacked it.  Besides some clothes and shaving kit, I had packed a German novella, which I was required to read for one of my literature courses.   It was too early for supper so down I sat and started reading.  After a little more than an hour, I laid the book on the table next to the chair, got up, washed my face, combed my hair and went out for a bite to eat.

After dinner, I found a small pub went in and had a couple of glasses of wine.  There I spoke with some Austrian students about various subjects and by the time I left, at around 11:00 pm, we had solved the world’s problems. I was in bed by 11:45 pm.

The next morning, I woke up slightly before 8:00 am.  After brushing my teeth I went down the hall to have a shower.  I entered the dining room at 8:30 am and was given a table by the window.  The waitress, a woman in her forties, asked for my room number?  She then asked what I wished to drink and if I would like a soft-boiled egg? I told her, “coffee and yes.”  It wasn’t everyday that one could get a soft boiled egg.

When she returned, the waitress brought me a small feast.  Along with a pot of freshly brewed coffee and soft boiled egg she brought a basket full of several types of sliced bread and rolls as well as a platter covered with all sorts of cold cuts and cheeses.  Being young and constantly hungry, I made short work of what was laid in front of me.   The waitress, who turned out to be the old lady’s daughter, seemed pleased.   Like most Central European women she liked to see someone with a good appetite.

Having finished my breakfast, I took my leave from the waitress and went back up to my room to pack up.  This took only a couple of minutes. Leaving the room, I locked the door behind me.

As I was walking down the spiral staircase to pay my bill, I encountered the old lady coming up. We stopped and greeted each other. I mentioned that I wished to settle my bill, which she said I could do right there.  I pulled several bills from my pocket and counted out 110 schillings.  But before I had a chance to pay her, she took my hand in hers, gave me a grandmotherly look and said, more than asked, “You’re a student aren’t you”?  I confirmed I was.  She patted my hand, smiled and said “For students it’s only 70 schillings”.

Surprised, I repeated “70?” and she nodded.  I gave her the money, thanking her for her kindness.  We walked down the staircase together and as I departed she wished me, “All the best.”

I had come to Salzburg to take in the sights and absorb a little culture.  What I’d found was far more valuable and would mean more to me than either.

God bless little girls and old ladies. • (2502 views)

Share
This entry was posted in Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Little Girls and Old Ladies

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    A nice story. The closest I ever came to anything like that was shortly after we got to Greece. We were staying at a hotel in the resort town of Kifissia, and my father, brother, and I had gone out for a walk (I don’t recall more specifics than that). As we walked back, they were in front of me talking to each other. When they turned off for the hotel, I didn’t notice (I tended to walk looking down), and they didn’t notice that I hadn’t followed them. Several blocks later, I finally noticed that I was alone and lost, and at the age of 9 didn’t think of simply reversing my course. (This would occur to me a year or so later when I got lost in a similar situation at a Boy Scout camp near Marathon.) Fortunately, I came across some nice chap who somehow got word out that I was there (by then, my family was looking for me, of course).

    It wasn’t much, but I was in a panic and certainly needed someone’s help, however small. In retrospect, I can think of so many ways this could have led to disaster (including the possibility of running into a murderous pedophile, which would never have occurred to me until decades later when I read of similar cases). But in the end it was no harm done; there were a few things that gave me nightmares, but that wasn’t one of them.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Getting lost in a foreign country can be a real terror. I can imagine how worried your parents were. But a good man took the time to help a child and, while it may be a cliche’, that is how it should be.

  2. Anniel says:

    And now I know more about Salzburg and what kind of people live there. I love reading about how the air smells in the different places you have been, and I’m always glad when things are clean.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      This reminds me of a point I once read, that George Orwell had the best nose of any significant writer, really putting a lot of emphasis on smells. Lacking a sense of smell myself, I’m not in a position to fully appreciate it, unfortunately.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I think it was Proust, who in his tome “Remembrances of Things Past” began with the protagonist recalling distant parts of his life after smelling something being cooked. I have not read the book so I can’t judge from first hand experience.

  3. GHG says:

    I enjoy your vignettes. Please keep sharing.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Thanks. I think I may have one or two more.

      • Rosalys says:

        Only one or two? I’d love to read a whole book’s worth of your stories.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Frankly, I am a little surprised at the reaction to my stories, but I am happy some people enjoy them. Going back to my first one, “Thanks for Smoking”, they are all true experiences I have had.

          Who knows how many more I will be able to pen? If I write something, I tend to like to let it sit for a while before going back to edit it, and then edit it, and then edit it…….

  4. Tom Riehl TRiehl says:

    Thanks for the uplifting and heartwarming story.

    It brought back the memory of my first visit to Vienna. What a glorious place! I was squired about by a local, bilingual businessman who showed me the best of the architecture, then we motored out to the middle of the country. I stayed at a local boarding house while conducting my business there, and discovered the nearly primal niceness of the locals. Three weeks at the base of the Alps, making test flights thereabout, and I was in heaven. Turns out that the airport and hangar I was using was one of the few undiscovered by the Allies and was old, yet pristine. It was the location used in the movie “Where Eagles Dare”, for the take-off scenes. The movie crew actually had to build the fence now surrounding the airport to make it look like a secure military base.

    Aigen will always be one of my treasured memories, both for its beauty, and for the warmth and kindness of its inhabitants. Thank God I had my good camera with me, along with my inborn German constitution that enabled me to endure the rollicking evenings in the house’s bitty pub.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I have been lucky to visit Austria many times since the time frame of this story. Vienna is more beautiful now than then as it was less than thirty years after the end of WWII. They were also building the subway so there were huge areas in the center around Stephansplatz which were boarded off completely.

  5. Misanthropette says:

    Lovely story, thank you for sharing it. I like Mozart, but I love Schubert. And on the topic of Austrians, yesterday was listening to Alfred Brendel’s gorgeous Beethoven late piano sonatas. I love Alfred Brendel’s playing, especially his Schubert Wanderer Fantasie. What a talent. What a culture!

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      You would love Vienna. While I lived there, one could choose from at least 5 or 6 musical concerts and recitals every night, during the season. I don’t imagine it has changed much.

      If theater was your thing, there were also something like 7 or 8 major productions going on every night.

  6. Jerry Richardson says:

    KFZ,

    A large double bed, with two huge down pillows, stood against the wall. This was covered by a thick goose down comforter. The white sheet underneath the comforter was turned down forming an eight-inch border. There was a large wooden wardrobe and a thickly cushioned chair; both looked like antiques, but in excellent condition. On one wall there was a sink with a mirror above it. On another wall was a crucifix. To the left of the sink was a window niche about three feet wide and two feet deep. Lace curtains covered the window itself. On the window ledge there was a small potted plant. The room was immaculate. It was just what one would expect from an Austrian Hausfrau. It even smelled clean. Not like disinfectant, but like sun and a meadow. In short, it was perfect. —KFZ

    I really enjoy your description of detail. I have to ask one question. Are you a technical person? When someone says “The white sheet underneath the comforter was turned down forming an eight-inch border.” How, or why, did you say or know it was an eight-inch border? Just curious.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Jerry,

      I am not a technical person, but have always had the ability and habit of taking in my surroundings pretty efficiently. I like to know where I am and what is going on.

      I no longer recall exactly why I noticed the eight inch border, but the measurement is still in my draft written many years back. It may have had something to do with the span of my hand. In any case, I wanted to give a true impression of the almost obsessive orderliness of the room, which was not uncommon for the time and place. To my mind, it showed pride and caring for one’s guests. It was beautiful.

      Interestingly, I can envision parts of the room over 40 years later. I can also vaguely recall the night out when I spoke with a number of young Austrians. The little girl and the old lady are still pretty clear in my mind. That is not to say I would recognize them, but their forms and the circumstances are still with me.

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    All I can say, Mr. Kung, is to sign me up if you ever go back there to look for the same place just to see who is still around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *