Brigitte, another English teacher at HTL Pinkafeld, invited me last Monday to go hiking with her and her class on Wednesday. The last time I had gone hiking was in Prague two summers ago, where a hilly trail on the western edge of the town had led me up through the woods, past a wild hedgehog, and up to a beer garden with a view overlooking the city. That hike took three hours, and I remembered how exhausted I was by the time I ordered my glass of pivo at the beer garden. Embarrassed and explaining to her that I was not in hiking shape, I asked Brigitte how long of a hike this would be. We were in one of the teachers’ lounges upstairs, where an espresso machine that Brigitte was using hummed in the background.
“Oh, not long. It’s not very hard. Just a few kilometers, really.” She paused, scratched her chin, and looked down at a sheet of paper with her schedule for the day. “It would also be a great opportunity to meet the students, if that’s any incentive.” She walked over to the espresso machine, grabbed the filled cup, and took a sip of the espresso. She smiled and asked if I had wanted a cup myself.
Her enthusiasm and friendliness sold me on the hike. We agreed to meet up at the entrance of the school dormitory where her class would meet at seven-thirty a.m. We parted ways as she headed for her first class of the day and I headed for my first kebab of the day.
I woke up at six-fifty a.m. on Wednesday and headed over to the cafeteria to grab breakfast. The breakfast options included yogurt, bread, four different kinds of sliced ham, cheese, and coffee. I slurped down the yogurt, chowed down on the bread, devoured the ham and the cheese, and gulped three cups of coffee; before leaving, I also wrapped up a couple of sandwiches in paper to take with my on the hike. I then walked back to my room to change into running shoes, shorts, a tee shirt, and a light jacket, and waited in front of the entrance with my backpack that contained a bottle of water and two sandwiches as instructed on Monday. Ten minutes later, Brigitte and her students showed up. They all wore long pants, hiking shoes, three layers of clothes, knitted caps, gloves, and weather-resistant backpacks. The students ogled me in disbelief and curiosity, and Brigitte tried to contain her smile.
“Perhaps it would be best that you put on something – ah – warmer?” She suggested. I ran back to my room, changed into pants, gloves, a long-sleeve shirt, a sweater, a heavy jacket, and a knitted cap and returned to find Brigitte with a look of approval.
“Much better.” We marched outside to the bus stop, where a coach bus awaited to take us to the bottom of the hill that we were going to hike. The students, who rubbed their eyes, yawned, and yet spoke loudly among each other, eyed me but remained hesitant to approach me. We climbed into the bus, Brigitte and me first and then the students, and Brigitte made a headcount to make sure all students – save two who were “sick” – were accounted for. The bus driver turned on the engine and the bus began its rumble toward our destination. Brigitte chatted up our bus driver, who seemed to enjoy the conversation with her much more than the Austrian Top 40 radio he felt inclined to play for his passengers.
“Where exactly are we going?” I asked Brigitte after she had finished talking to the driver. Brigitte, who was past her fifties, dug her wiry yet muscular hands into her bag to pull out a map for me to show. She pointed out a spot in the middle of the map labeled Wechsel.
“We start here, at Wechsel, and we will climb up here, like this, this way.” Her index finger traced a line that stretched in a direction to the northwest, and I took the time to quickly measure the distance using the map key.
“That looks at least like twenty-five kilometers.”
“Only thirty kilometers, actually.”
“But it’s only going to take us eight hours.”
“Besides, it will only be two, three kilometers of elevation.”
“Huh.” I unzipped the front of my jacket, as I had begun to sweat heavily down my back and around my armpits.
Brigitte had chosen this location, she explained, because she was a former guide for hiking tours at Wechsel. Although she stopped being a tour guide ten years ago, during the fall and summer she climbed up Wechsel with her husky, and in the winter she went skiing down its slopes. I spent the next twenty minutes of the bus ride staring at my shoes and the sloping hills of the Burgenland oscillate unevenly by us. At eight-fifteen, we got off of the bus, which dumped us off at the bottom of Wechsel, and the students huddled around in a semicircle around Brigitte.
Brigitte went through the checklist of directions, in which she made sure that every pupil had her cellphone number and knew what to do in case he or she became separated from the group.
“Please do not get eaten by anything, and please do not eat anything you find.” The students giggled at the reference, I learned later, because of Wechsel’s popularity as a harvesting site for psychedelic mushrooms. “And one more thing – this is our English teaching assistant who will be working with you in October. Talk to him, and see if you could learn a thing or two about him.” The students yawned and nodded their heads, and we began our ascent.
Within the first half hour, the class of twenty-five students had split into three identifiable groups. In the front, the soccer players jockeyed for position to flirt with the only three girls in the class. Two clusters formed in the middle, each small group made up of teenage drinking buddies. In the back, two students trailed the pack without companions. I plodded along between the gap of the front and middle group and listened to the students’ Burgenland dialect, which drowned out the chirping of the distant birds and the crunching of the pine branches underneath our feet.
About an hour into the hike, one of the boys of the middle group tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and faced him, a boy with blue eyes, blond hair, and a team of grinning teenage boys right behind him.
“What is your name again?”
“My name is Hans.” The boys giggled and fidgeted in response to my answer. “And what’s your name?”
“My name is Marcus, very nice to meet you.”
“Is your name really Hans?” One of his friends piped up. I turned my attention to him, a boy with a faux-hawk and dark-rimmed glasses and a dark blue Abercrombie jacket. “It does not sound very much like American name, no?”
“It’s actually a very traditional Japanese name,” I answered. Marcus and his classmates roared in laughter, and by this point they had formed a circle around me.
“You are Japanese?” Another student asked.
“Part-Japanese. My mother is from Japan.”
“And you, where in the United States are you from?” Marcus asked.
“I’m from California, near Los Angeles.”
“Los Angeles? Geeiiiiilll,” the kids uttered in unison, and the questions began to fly: why was I here? How long was I staying in Austria? When was I starting work? How do I like Austria? Why do Americans like guns? I answered each question, which in turn emboldened them, and within twenty minutes we were playing “Two Truths and a Lie.” They were all sixteen, except for seventeen year-old Christoph, the Borussia Dortmund fan. Marcus, Michael, and Gerhard played soccer, but the others either skied or played videogames. They studied at a technical school, but none of them liked his math class. Lukas thought learning English was easier than learning German.
“I think this because the English grammar is more easier,” he harrumphed. The other boys all laughed at Lukas and called him gay.
Our hike led us through a grove of evergreens, where the beaten path we followed narrowed, widened, and narrowed again. The trail itself felt like a path that enough people had walked on to be considered a trail but was maintained little enough that the critters of Wechsel had more claim to its creation than humans did. Fallen trees cut off our route at various points, and at other points the only contiguous trail were the grooves in large slabs of rocks that happened to line up after years of erosion. After tripping on roots, slipping in wet dirt, and brushing away the countless braches that caressed our bodies during the next hour of the climb, we reached a crossroads where a grey, wooden lodge with a brick chimney and the size of a garage stood at a clearing on the edge of a hill. The students and Brigitte, who had remained ahead of everyone during this entire time, made their way to the dry, creaky bench and opened up their bags for a quick snack. I set down my bag next to Maximilian, who assured me that he would save my seat, and walked over to the edge of the hill where a rusty, wire fence separated me and a gentle slope. Gazing out into the direction of Niederösterreich, I made out a handful of wind turbines that spun on the top of hazy hills in the distance. Between the crevices that the hills formed, dots that resembled Austrian towns with their orange-roofed buildings and white-walled churches snuggled comfortably. I took two photos to send to my mother before walking back to the bench to join the students and Brigitte.
By the time we had left the bench and resumed our hike, dark clouds had gathered and the temperature had dropped down to the high thirties. I asked Brigitte where our destination was, and she pointed to a speck on top of the highest hill, a speck that looked like a chapel if I squinted hard enough.
“We’re practically there!” Beamed Brigitte.
As our ascent became steeper and colder, the line of hikers began to string out. Brigitte stopped more frequently and waited for the slower students to catch up, but we both saw that one student was struggling to keep pace. Sebastian, a boy who had been hiking alone in the back the entire time, grabbed his thick thighs when he walked and lurched with his stomach for every step he took. He wore fogged glasses that he had to push back up onto his nose every few minutes, and I could see the sweat that had soaked through the front of his shirt around his neck. Whenever Sebastian caught up to Brigitte waiting for him, she asked him how he was feeling. Sebastian replied each time that he was fine.
I let Marcus and his friends continue the hike on their own and took my place next to Sebastian. Hardened cow dung mixed with jagged rocks littered this portion of the trail, and the way we were walking resembled hopscotch rather than a proper hike. Sebastian tried his best to care what he was stepping on, but his haggard eyes and flushed cheeks belied his effort. After a few minutes of silence, I asked Sebastian what his hobbies were.
“I really like playing computer games, yes.” I asked him what kind of games he played. “Survival games. I like to play survival games.”
“Like Rust?” Sebastian’s ears perked up at the mention of the game and he picked his head up to turn and face me.
“Do you play Rust?” I told him I didn’t but that I knew a few things about videogames. “Rust is very fun. If you like computer games, I recommend it.” Sebastian pushed past his heavy breathing with his excitement. “I suppose I would rather be playing that right now than hiking.”
“It’s a lot easier to hike in a game than on Wechsel, huh?” Sebastian laughed and nodded his head.
“Much easier. The difficulty setting here is too high for me.” Sebastian started to tell me about the glitches and the stories he had come across playing his favorite survival game, DayZ. We spent the rest of the hike talking about his games, but right before we reached our destination at the top of the hill, Brigitte overheard the conversation and threw her hands up in mock-dismay.
“You’re out in the nature and you are talking about video games?” She bemoaned. “Can’t you at least ask Hans something about the United States?” Sebastian rubbed the back of his head and knit his eyebrows. After two minutes of silence and Brigitte’s gaze fixed onto him, Sebastian spoke up.
“What kinds of video games are popular in the United States?”
Brigitte let out a roar and pretended to shake Sebastian’s head. A chilly breeze that blew in from the west stifled the echoes of our guffaws that drifted off into the sleepy hills of Wechsel.