By Robyn Winter
It’s a long way from Austria to Australia. I reflect on just how far as I sit in a square in the middle of Vienna, looking across to the central cathedral, imagining what the swastikas would have looked like draped on the surrrounding buildings when my grandfather was a boy. I’m not sure whether the heaviness in my body comes from immersing myself for too long in this heady city of music, bratwurst and sachertorte, or if it is a feeling better described as homesickness.
I have been travelling around Europe with twenty kilograms of possessions and a sleeping bag on my back, and my passport, cash and credit cards in a leather purse strung around my neck. I have been spurred on through casual jobs and random encounters by a wonder in all things foreign and a nebulous interest in knowing where my place in the world is, other than in a town half a world away from here, with no traffic lights, whose claim to a very little-known type of fame is to be “The Town That Moved In The 1950’s”, to make way for a dam. After crossing countless borders, adapting to nuances of customs and stammering through daily life with a phrasebook, I wanted to stop in a city where I could speak the language and look as if I belonged. Vienna ticked all the boxes, as I always suspected it would.
I started my travels here and have been back for several months, working in a café and living the European life for a while until am ready to go back, to the fabled land of droughts and floods and eccentric characters that is home.
I have just come from the central post office. The Poste Restante system is haphazard and sometimes weeks will go by without any letters, only to find three arriving months after being sent. But it’s exciting in its flawed uncertainty, just a step up from a message in a bottle, allowing a person to inhabit a Somerset-Maughan world where mail is put aside and waits patiently for the world traveller to collect it. I can just imagine the postmaster somewhere in one of the European cities where I have spent time, cigarette hanging from his mouth and dropping ash over everything in his path, matching an envelope with my name on it to a request to forward it on, from Vienna to London to Dublin, then Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Nice, Florence, Athens, Venice, and now back to Vienna.
The crisp man behind the counter at the post office finds it amusing that in the age of the internet somebody my age still drops by every week to pick up her mail. I email my friends and skype my parents, I tweet and blog about my adventures for anyone who cares to follow my trail, but it is my grandparents that I cannot reach in this way. They resolutely refuse to use modern technology. They remain happily without a computer or mobile phone, working in their orchard on Towong Gap overlooking the Upper Murray River, taking day trips to visit my parents in nearby Tallangatta. My grandfather built their house and my grandmother painted the walls with colourful murals, works of the European masters remembered from her time at art school.
My initial frustration at their pig-headedness – a trait that my Polish grandmother and Austrian grandfather each assign as the character flaw of the other’s nation – has softened with my enjoyment of their letter-writing. It is lovely to open an envelope, addressed by hand and bulging with lavender pages from my grandmother’s stationery set, and to diligently craft a letter in return, trying to capture my thoughts in carefully chosen words that will be treasured by the person who reads them.
As I have found my own voice in my letters, narrating my journey across my grandparents’ Europe, so have I discovered their stories. Through their letters they have become my personal guides to the Old World, and in so doing they have given me that most precious gift – heritage.
They met at Bonegilla after the Second World War, two Displaced Persons from Europe in a strange land of towns with unpronounceable names – Yackandandah, Tumbarumba, Tangambalanga. My grandfather learned to speak Australian working on the Snowy River hydroelectric scheme, and my grandmother learned not to speak Polish anywhere in earshot of the locals. My grandparents’ German surname was anglicised – nobody wanted to be called a Nazi or a Kraut. They raised my dad to play Australian Rules and cricket, the best way to fit in, and he only responded to English in public. Because they tried hard and were all fair-haired and blue-eyed and got sunburnt at the local pool like everyone else, it was easy to be Australian. But my grandfather always felt that he had sacrificed his son’s finer cultivation in order to get along in a new land, and with the passing of time and the arrival of a granddaughter, he was ready. With me he spoke only German, giving me little choice but to learn, and embarked on making me the concert pianist he had wanted to be as a Viennese schoolboy, before the War had abruptly ended that dream.
A piano had been one of the first things my grandfather bought when he finished building his home, and he played it every evening. Music was his conversation.
Few people can remember when they learned to speak or to walk; I cannot recall a time when I did not know how to play the piano. One of our family’s oft-recited stories was of my grandfather holding me for the first time and pronouncing:
“She has such long, fine fingers for a baby. She will play the piano beautifully.”
As my teacher and greatest believer, it was my grandfather who was the constant figure watching over my progress, seated on the stool beside me and being audience, metronome and instructor all at once. It never seemed like practice, any more than being read a bedtime story by somebody you love feels like education or expansion of the intellect; it was just fun. We got lost in the music, no matter how simple, until it was time to stop.
When I was learning a new piece using only my right hand, my grandfather provided the bass part until I was confident enough to play with both hands. Even then we would sometimes play one hand each to share the experience. As I grew more proficient he just watched, sometimes gently lifting my wrists off the keys to emphasize the pauses – the art of playing with feeling. We shared a love of Beethoven above all other composers. We loved sitting side by side on the piano stool to play duets, simple ones at first and then more challenging as I grew more confident.
The years passed, and my grandfather took a backseat, sitting to my right and just behind me on a chair. We no longer played duets; there was not enough room on the piano stool for two personalities, two interpretations of phrasing and tempo and four duelling hands.
My sense of personal space and freedom of expression demanded more of a distance, and not just while I was playing the piano. Out of the extreme edge of my peripheral vision I sometimes saw him tapping his foot to keep time, but as often as not I ignored him.
He sometimes interrupted me to correct wrong notes or sloppy technique; I tolerated the intrusion by visiting him and playing for him less often.
Alongside the other inevitable disappointments of impending adulthood came the realisation that I would never be talented enough to play the piano for a living.
Other things became priorities and it was just a matter of time before I stopped playing altogether. I felt my grandfather’s disappointment as a silence that was too painful to be acknowledged.
But now, in Vienna, I have started playing again, of all places in a house that Beethoven once lived in. I was alone in a sparsely funished room, standing near a roped off Klavier that had belonged to the irascible composer, when the attendant approached and stood quietly beside me, following my gaze from a lock of Beethoven’s hair and his death mask to the piano.
“Do you play?” he asked in a hushed voice.
I contemplated the correct answer. “I used to play.”
He gently took my wrist in his hand and brushed my fingers over the piano keys.
It was a completely unexpected action. I felt light-headed and my fingers tingled.
“Go on. Play in the echoes of the Master.” There was no-one else in the room. He was insistent that I should play.
I forgot that I had not played for years in the excitement of the moment. I sat down quickly before the attendant changed his mind, pictured the opening strain of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and let my hands fall softly onto the keys, hardly daring to believe that they would find the notes. Somehow they did, only the first page or so before faltering but it was enough to remember the feeling and I knew that I had been foolish in walking away.
I sent a postcard with a picture of the Klavier to my grandfather. There is a piano at the pension I am staying at and the landlady assures me I can play it whenever I like. There is plenty of music in the stool.
While I have been away my grandmother has written a letter every Sunday with details of the week that was. My grandfather initially only added a brief postscript, under duress I imagine, which began with “Well, your grandmother has told you all the news”, and ended with a warning which varied according to where I had been most recently and the news of the day.
“Take care liebling, and stay away from gypsies. They are all thieves.”
“Take care libeling, and don’t associate with Italians. They are as bad as the gypsies.”
Since I have been in Vienna and told him of the Beethoven Klavier day and my newfound practicing on the piano at the pension, my grandfather writes more and more pages. I reciprocate by adding tidbits in my letters that he knows are for his appreciation, and by fulfilling his requests for me to immerse myself in finer Viennese culture. For my grandfather I go to outdoor Strauss concerts at Rathaus Park, to Mozart’s Figarohaus and to a series of apartments that claim Beethoven as a former tenant. For my grandmother I spend the best part of a week at the MuseumsQuartier gazing enraptured at works by Schiele and Klimt. I realise with a smile that the couple entwined in a mural on the wall of my grandparents bedroom, painted lovingly by my grandmother, is her own self-styled version of “The Kiss”.
My grandfather’s requests continue and are explained by stories he has never told me.
“You must go to the Staatsoper Theatre; see if they still have standing room at the front that is very cheap. My family used to take me there when I was old enough to stand for the entire opera and not fidget. And visit Stephansdom; I was once an altar boy there, and I sang in the choir when I was still very small, before the war.
“Liebling, you must go the Prater, it is much better than your Luna Park in Melbourne. The biggest ferris wheel you can imagine!”
I visit the cemetery where so many composers are buried, Schonbrunn where a six-year-old Mozart once performed for the royal family, and take a boat ride on the Danube, writing to my grandfather that it is about as blue as Melbourne’s own Yarra River.
I have travelled to the other side of the world to live for a time in a limbo of my own creation, and from this perspective I finally know my grandfather.
There is a letter waiting for me in the chaos of the Poste restante box. Even from the other side of the counter I recognise my grandmother’s handwriting.
I tear open the envelope and my smile freezes as I make sense of the hastily written note.
“Your grandfather is coming home next week and the man from the council is coming tomorrow to fit the house out so he can get around more easily. No speech yet but he seems to understand me when I talk to him and when I read your letters I know that he is listening to every word.”
It seems that my grandmother is expecting my telephone call; I can feel the relief and the strength in her voice even from ten thousand miles away as she tells me it is my grandfather who did not want my parents to email me earlier. He did not want my time in Vienna to end too soon.
My grandfather has suffered a stroke a month before, collapsing with a discordant crash while seated at the piano. His right side is paralysed and speaking is difficult. He has regained enough movement in his right leg to walk with a stick but his arm is curled weakly into his side.
It is time to go home.
My parents are there to greet me at Tullamarine and we immediately start the long drive up towards the border. The fields flanking the highway are green, and Lake Hume is unbelievably full; the drought is over, my parents tell me.
My grandmother greets us at the front door with a long embrace and a finger to her lips. She beckons for me to follow her inside. I hear the lonely sound of a single hand finding the bass chords of Moonlight Sonata.
I stand in the hall and watch my grandfather, absorbed in his determination to make the instrument sing without his right hand. All the affection and admiration I have for him come rushing painfully to me as I stand behind him and feel his frustration.
I quietly seat myself beside him and squeeze his withered right hand.
He stops and looks at me, a crooked smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“You w-w-work the p-pedal,” he says slowly, struggling to articulate the words without slurring. “My l-leg – is no good.”
Hesitantly I place my right hand on the keys and find the notes of the treble, awkwardly, and my grandfather’s left hand answers with the bass. We plod slowly along to the end, a few mistakes along the way but with feeling, and we manage to finish in unison, ending with the softest of chords which we sustain until the sound has faded from the room.
My grandfather’s eyes smile at me. I take his hands in mine and find the words for both of us.
“It doesn’t matter how the start and the middle went, as long as we finish together.”