Memoirs of a Non-Geisha in Salzburg

I have decided to post memoirs from my time in Salzburg, Austria in the summer of 2003. I was recently digging around in my old hard drive from my college desktop computer and I found 20 Microsoft Word pages worth of my random impressions and memories of Salzburg. I enrolled in a 5-week summer study abroad program in Salzburg, the city famous for Mozart and the Von Trapp Family singers.

Keep in mind that I was 18 when I wrote this, and it’s quite ridiculous to consider how much I have changed since then. Nonetheless, I am more or less posting this in its original form, with a few edits here or there. I honestly don’t know what is possessing me to post this–it might have to do with the late hour and the fact that I am a bit bored at the moment–but I figured, what better way to say hello to my 23rd year by indulging a bit of nostalgia.

Also: I am definitely not posting this all at once… I wouldn’t do that to you… Think of this as the first of several installments.

Enjoy! (before I undoubtedly delete this by morning…)

So without further ado, and keeping in tune with the theme “randomness and ruminations,” I give you:

Memoirs of a Non-Geisha in Salzburg (Part 1)

My first encounter with Salzburg College was amidst an overwhelming feeling of culture shock and jetlag. My roommate and I arrived at our host home in Salzburg 1 o’clock earlier that morning. The next day was drizzly and cold, and tired though we were, we had to find our way to Salzburg College, trying to learn the names of the bus stops we needed to know, simultaneously not being used to European public transportation or German language. That first, gray morning in Salzburg I was wide-eyed and terrified of the strange new world that didn’t speak a word of English.

Trying to concentrate on directions, and keeping warm and dry under a flimsy London fog umbrella can prove to be more frustrating than one would initially think. We crossed a bridge from Theatergasse, over the Salzach River, and scrambled over cobblestones and wet pavement, and, impatient for some dry shelter, we were relieved to finally reach the heavy iron door to Salzburg College, at Ursulinplatz 4. We pressed the intercom button, and the voice of a happy, Austrian lady greeted us with “Who is this?”

“Kira and Melissa.”

“Come on in!”

The door clicked, and we pushed through and stepped into a small lobby area, with a stone floor, and rows of pegs to hang coats, umbrellas and hats. A spiral staircase beckoned us to come up, past a bulletin board, papered with announcements and information. We met Gretel, the voice from the intercom, and she was a petite, cheerily dressed bundle of energy. The square, stylish glasses could not hide the smile in her eyes, and her short, cropped hair seemed to get their spike from sheer joy. She welcomed us, and directed us to the library which was on the top floor of the four-story converted townhouse.

The library was surprisingly bright and airy, and the shelves of books circled around us like an embrace, eager to welcome a new batch of incoming students. It was a relief to see Chrystal, Megan, and Emily already seated at their desks, and there were six new faces, segregated on the other side of the library, sprawled behind tables and desks. One alert, smiling girl straightened her posture as we walked in and gave Kira and me an openly curious and friendly grin. I smiled cautiously (as shy people always do- you’d think we’d get over the initial “surprise” of new faces and just simply dive in, but no, for some reason we shy people are always genuinely surprised by friendliness), and the alert smiling girl introduced herself as Annette, she explained that she was born in Salzburg, but moved to America when she was eight years old.

We eagerly exchanged stories about our first night in Salzburg, about what we had for breakfast, and what our living situations were like. Annette has to take a train every day to class, because she lives with her aunt in Obendorf, a town several miles away. Chrystal and Megan had the entire top floor of Frau Schreiner’s house to themselves, complete with a bathroom and kitchen area, much different from our situation: Kira and I each had our own separate bedroom, but we had to share the guest bathroom, which was on the first floor.

“And Emily, we’re glad to see you. What happened? How did you get here from Munich?”
She gave a regretful laugh. “Yeah, I waited in the airport in Munich all day yesterday for you guys, then I got tired of waiting and checked into a hotel. Then the next morning I took a taxi to Salzburg.”

My jaw dropped open. “You took a taxi from Munich to Salzburg?” I didn’t even want to think about how expensive that was.

“Yeah, my first two days out of the country, I’ve spent 400 euros.”

Ouch. “That’s rough. I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “What can you do?”

“I’ll just be grateful that you’re here.”

Another regretful laugh. “Yeah, me too.”

Gradually, the rest of the students sauntered in the room, each gingerly picking their prospective seats. One had the feeling that we had to be extra sensitive about everything in our new surroundings. I strained to see the other four unfamiliar figures. One short, pig-tailed head was propped over the backpack that she clutched, while a shock of curly, strawberry blonde hair faced forward, staring straight ahead at the projector screen and shelves of art history books. An elderly gentleman peered at us through large, round glasses and sat tentatively at the back, as if he were the caretaker of this gaggles of grown-up school children, and unsure if he should let us know if he were the leader, or here of his own accord. A guy with a long, blonde ponytail and clad in a conspicuously enthusiastic Bob Marley shirt greeted us with a “How y’all doing?”

“Where are you from?”

“Rome, Georgia.”

“We’re all from Florida!”

He nodded his head and smiled. “Cool.”

“What’s your major?”

“English. But I’m taking German here.” His heavy Georgian drawl was somehow strangely comforting.

Eric said something about having corn flakes for breakfast. Kira and I chimed in that we had corn flakes as well. Must be an Austrian thing….

A young woman, dressed in a black business suit, whirled her way into the library. She wasn’t too tall, but she had a commanding presence, and to me, she fit my idea of the Austrian stereotype- she had fine features, with a crown of honeyed hair, and a surprisingly warm smile. She introduced herself as Petra Jenewein, and she was to be our academic advisor for the next five weeks.

Her youth was quite misleading, and I assumed that she was new at this, and I dismissed the notion that she would be the great giver of advice and support and information. Her brief introduction of herself was disarming and surprisingly impressive: she was an English and Geography major at the University of Salzburg, where she specialized in Geographical Informational Systems, with an emphasis on satellite-based urban planning and remote sensing. This complicated technical jargon founded the basis of her dissertation work, which she was currently in the midst of completing.

What I had assumed would be a dry, pedantic information session was transformed into an animated string of anecdotes, random trivia, and good, practical advice. Perched casually atop a veneer library table, Petra related to us stories of her initial encounter with American culture, when she visited the States for the first time. She described her awe at the vast size of a supermarket, and she poked fun at the American tendency to say “Excuse me,” even though your shopping cart may be three meters away, with no possibility for collision! She explained the mystery of “Der Föhn,” a warm, westerly wind that blows through the mountains, and she gave us the permission and the privilege of native Salzburgers- the ability to blame the klutzy moments in our lives on “Der Föhn.” So if we were “sick in the morning, late to class, had a horrible music lesson, stuck in traffic” or even stubbed our toes, we could just shrug our shoulders and account such misfortunes to this infamous, meteorological scapegoat.

Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice that she imparted to us was this: “In any culture or city, you can only see as much as you know.” She explained that, though Salzburg was an extremely beautiful city, as evidenced by its skyline, which boasts the coppered domes of Gothic cathedrals and Baroque chapels, these buildings “will have no meaning if you don’t know the history behind them”. Thus began our history lesson, about the principalities of Austria, and the governing structure of the Old City, and the influence of St. Rupert, and the rule of the prince archbishops. Punctuated by slides which gave us a taste of the city which would be our home for the next few weeks, Petra prepared us for our walking tour of Salzburg, and breathed life into these tall, imposing structures which we encountered on every sidewalk.

In a way, Petra herself was very much like the fortresses and cathedrals that we saw in Salzburg. I was very impressed by the outward, imposing grandeur of St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Franziskenkirche, and the Festung. But this impression never went beyond superficiality until I understood the history behind the ancient buildings and forms of architecture.

Such was the case with Petra. I had no knowledge of who she was as a person, beyond that brief autobiographical blurb she had given us. As the weeks passed by, I began to understand how deeply the level of commitment and passion really went, concerning this job that she had. In fact, after that first day of orientation, for the next two weeks, I never gave Petra a second thought. I was so consumed with adjusting to life in Salzburg, and meeting new people, and practicing for piano, that I never stopped by her office once.

And then came the Vienna field trip. The hint of the role she would play in that Vienna trip came earlier that week, on Tuesday, when our entire group met at Salzburg College to go to the Mozart Wohnhaus. As our first field trip together, all fifteen of us had no idea what the routine was, but Petra met us there at the cobblestone square at Ursulinplatz 4 that morning, and then she guided us by the riverside, and over the Salzach, to the Theatergasse, where Mozart’s residence is sandwiched between jewelry and china shops and a café. I remember her randomly stopping in front of the Hotel Sacher Café, bidding us wait while she ran inside to make what we could only assume to be a purchase. Who eats Sacher Torte at 9 in the morning? We stood outside of the café, puzzled at this seemingly random detour from our itinerary. If there is one thing Petra is not, she is never frivolous.

We never did solve the mystery of that random stop. We often joked that Petra really is a CIA agent, and that her penchant for satellite-based research actually served as a cover for her true covert operation, in which she is the designated spy with access to all forms of surveillance, and that the Sacher Torte Café was the rendezvous point with her higher up contacts and fellow agents, to whom she relegated all procured information from her Salzburg College base of operations.

Ah, yes, the imagination of over-stimulated college students.


2 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Non-Geisha in Salzburg

  1. Pingback: My Mega Movie Weekend | randomness and ruminations

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