The Austria trip — Part IV: Time travel

25 JUNE 2018 — No one slept well. It was a warm house with no window screens. My urban-dwelling mom was afraid rats would come through her ground floor window, and settled for stagnant air. 

I was the first up and walked to the corner grocery store to stock up on breakfast necessities. The Spar was no bigger than a New York bodega but had a little bit of everything—fresh produce, dairy, meats, and an array of staples to supply this quaint mountain village. There was no doubt I was a tourist, but I shopped as long as I could before it became obvious I spoke little German.

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Until this point, Telfes was an imaginary place in my head, a pristine alpine resort constructed from photos and maps. Seeing it in the light, it was far more rustic than expected. The village was three worlds swirled into one: an agricultural community (our house was next to a small barn for milk cows), an upper middle class refuge (upscale modern houses), and a remote vacation destination (gasthofs and rental homes). In what seemed to be true of Austria at large, regardless of socio-economic standing, every structure was impeccably maintained and adorned with vibrant flowers. Telfes was on the north side of a valley running from Innsbruck in the east to the Stubai Glacier in the west, neither visible from our settlement. A red trolley ran hourly to and from the city, quietly humming along the tracks. Further out of town was an indoor pool, which appealed to my nieces. 

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I returned to our house with coffee, bread, fruit, eggs and milk. Our new accommodations were quirky—a former farmhouse unevenly divided into apartments, joined by a central stairwell. We mistakenly thought we had the place to ourselves, but the owners were confined to the top floor. My sister’s family claimed the best apartment on the middle floor, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bath, and a balcony. Katherine and I were next to them in a no-frills single room. On the lower level, The grandmothers had their own chambers, separated by a large open living room and kitchen.

The herd didn’t get out the door until noon. By then the cool overcast morning had cleared with sunny summer heat.

Today was the big day, the heart of the entire trip, retracing my mother’s memory and finding the places where she lived in the 1950s. It was a project in the works for over a decade. Several years before, my mom and I sifted through my grandparents’ archives, scanning photos, slides and documents, which then sat digitally dormant for years. As the Austria trip became more eminent, I finally analyzed what we found, trying to piece together the past. What was the exact timeline? Where did my mother and her family live? What exactly was happening in Europe when they arrived? My mom’s memories were a critical factor, corroborated by my grandmother’s journals, clues in the photos, ships’ manifests and military records. By the time we arrived in Innsbruck, enough of the past had been researched to make the most of our visit.

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To aid the mental time travel, I put on a playlist of oldies from the mid-1950s, not necessarily the music they would’ve heard in post-war Europe, but enough to evoke a specific moment in time, when the popularity of jazzy, brassy Big Band sounds quickly evolved into the energetic, bluesy gnarl of rock-and-roll.

The first stop was the “country” house where my mother’s family lived when they moved to Innsbruck. The little two-story structure was on the south side of the city, once a remote structure surrounded by farms. Sixty years later, the home was now part of a dense neighborhood, bordered by a major boulevard which separated it from a large sports complex. How quickly Innsbruck changed in the post-war economy, accelerated by the 1964 Winter Olympics (a massive ski jump could be spotted from all angles of the city). Mom described what it was like living here, piecing together memories on the fly, aided by old photos from when the house stood in an open field near foothills that were now obscured by a giant elevated freeway interchange. For all the distance of time, it helped for her to stand in the same place, to see the surviving structures, feel the mountains, breath the air. Even I felt my grandparents’ photos come alive, connecting with a physical space that had been trapped in two dimensions.

The country house, 1953.

The country house, 1953.

Little had changed about the square house, but it had since accumulated a car gate and thick perimeter walls, tall hedges and trees, and an awning to shelter part of the yard from the elements. We stood outside and took photos, but there was little else to do without engaging the residents, presumably away since it was a Monday. It would’ve been nice to take a glimpse inside; not even the yard was visible from outside the walls. Like any property, it’s nearly impossible to return to once it’s changed hands.

While my grandfather preferred living on the outskirts of any town, my grandmother despised it. She was a city girl, raised in Los Angeles, isolated in post-war Austria without a car and quickly lost her patience with the isolation. And so she convinced her husband to move the family into town, our next destination. 

Gänsbacherstraße was a lovely, tree-lined street with large four-story apartment buildings that were probably mansions at one time. It took several minutes to drive there, navigating city streets, dodging trolleys and turning under a viaduct, all the while imagining what a welcome relief it was for my grandmother. She was now close to shops and people, a foreigner who could feel somewhat at home. They occupied the ground level apartment with a beautiful enclosed terrace, with plenty of space and light between the neighboring buildings. This was the place my mother remembered the most, recalling the other people who lived in the building (including a basement-dwelling super with a barcode tattooed on his forearm). Everything they needed at the time was within walking distance, shops mainly, and because my mother and her brother so quickly picked up German, they often ran errands for their mother. A school bus took the kids to the army base school in Rum, one town over, a visit for another day.

My mom told stories as the adults listened patiently and the girls climbed on the fence. She could even recall where her American friends lived nearby, conjuring age-old memories of play dates and school days. I could see why the place left such an impact on her, a remarkable pocket of the world, as seemingly untouched by war then as it was now. The calm ambience was disturbed by a lawn crew grooming up and down the street, unintentionally forcing us to move on.

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The heart of Innsbruck was no more than a ten minute drive away, accounting for traffic and the hunt for a reliable place to park. Maria-Theresien-Straße was the center of the city, Innsbruck’s equivalent of the Champ-Elysées, with the eye-catching façade of the Goldenes Dachl aligned with the distant ski jump, bridging several centuries of history. This central plaza was a feat for the eyes, a vivacious blend of old and new, with thick crowds going about their business and gigantic snow-capped mountains looming above. The region of Tyrol was a contentious pocket of Austria, fiercely independent despite influences of Switzerland to the west, Italy to the south, Germany to the north and Vienna to the east. For a while, Innsbruck was the epicenter of Austro-Hungarian affairs, particularly when Maria Theresa, the sole female ruler of the Habsburg Monarchy, assumed her royal residence in the city and her many children married into the reigning families of neighboring countries, the most famous of which was teen bride Marie Antoinette and her unfortunate fate in Paris.

On a side street, we settled for lunch at Dengg, a well-reviewed modern restaurant serving fusion cuisine. We sat outside as a cool breeze kept us comfortable on the hot summer day. Best of all, we had no other obligation but to relax and enjoy.

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The group split for an hour to explore Innsbruck, merely enough time to walk around and window shop. Katherine and I found gifts for our kids, then grabbed gelato from a popular place. Once all eight of us reunited, we raided a nearby grocery store to stock up our house. It was the height of rush hour shopping, so the staff and customers weren’t exactly amused by our curious dallying. Stella was intrigued by the baby watermelons on sale and accidentally smashed one on the floor.

A wrong turn took our car on a detour through the neighboring town of Fulmpes. GPS, befuddled by ongoing road construction made the straightforward drive to Telfes far more convoluted, reassuring us that it was just as difficult to get around here during the day than it was on a rainy night.

We arrived at the house to find everyone else waiting outside. The front door wouldn’t unlock. Unable to reach the homeowners, my brother-in-law took to desperate measures and climbed up the balcony. He got into his apartment but was unable to open the glass door that separated it from the rest of the house. Meanwhile, my sister snuck in through the garage and discovered that if a key was left on the interior side of the lock, the door couldn’t be opened from the outside. This only added to our frustration with the rental. 

Katherine and I took a walk to calm our nerves. The serene scenery was lovely and gave us a chance to understand the lay of the land and make sense of our confused arrival the night before. My brother-in-law took his ladies to the water park. His mother went on a walk by herself. My mom stayed behind and wanted to sit on the balcony, only to discover that my sister had locked their door again. Fortunately, we weren’t gone long. 

The balcony, while rough around the edges, was perhaps the best feature of the entire house, a place to sit and savor the mountain valley view. A waxing full moon rose above the ridge-line as we drank wine and snacked on addictive thin breadsticks. The girls returned and excitedly spoke about the steep water slide. Once darkness and its chill set in, we moved inside to nosh on cheese, charcuterie, fruit and veggies. 

Finally, we felt free to relax in the house.

[More photos can be seen on my Flickr site.]