Katharina gave me a book titled Sprechen Sie Burgenländisch? as a going-away present last weekend when I visited her home in Rechnitz, a town fifty minutes outside of Pinkafeld. The book, whose title roughly translates to, “Do you understand these guttural noises disguised as German?”, was emblazoned with a photo of an elderly man wearing blue pants pulled up above his waste and grinning next to a triplet of dried gourds. I spent the next ten minutes sitting at the dining table in the corner of her living room and poring over all eighty pages of the orange book.
Katharina’s home, like any typical home in the Burgenland, was a polished log cabin inside. Two stories tall and a wine cellar where Katharina kept most of the wine from her vineyard, the house had been built thirty years ago under careful planning by her husband. I counted three imposing grandfather clocks from the entrance to the living room – one above the shoe rack at the entrance, one in the main hallway, and one next to the dusty television in the living room – and a bevy of paintings, both professional and amateur, furbished the walls of the home at idiosyncratic heights. An open window at the far end of this hallway refused to discriminate between the summer breeze and pollen that marched inside unimpeded.
In decorating her house, Katharina treated each flat surface of her house as a display stand and wasted no space in sprinkling her house with orreries made of ornaments and Jengas composed of history books. A glance of the living room showed the DVD player adorned with pink and purple stones from a Styrian quarry, animal figurines trampling atop stacks of Austrian travel magazines, and signs dangling from the wooden beams right below the ceiling that read, “I’m the mom – that’s why” and “HOUSE RULES: #1 Mom’s the boss; #2 See rule #1.”
“Every time we go to England I pick these things up,” Katharina said of the signs as she emerged from the kitchen with a basket full of baked goods. She sat down next to me in a wooden chair, creaking in a manner that beloved furniture do, and set the basket down in front of me. As one of the teachers who had promised to show me around some of the famed spots in Burgenland during my last week of work, Katharina observed me while I flipped through the book.
I worked with Katharina in two of her classes at the HTL, and in the teachers’ lounge she would stop whatever task was at hand whenever I walked in so that I could converse with her in German. Whenever I presented my lessons, she sat in the back of the room, neither stopping me nor cutting me off, and laughed along at jokes that were too dry for the students to understand. If she had anything she wanted to add, she waited until class was over. Most importantly, she supplied the teachers’ lounge with an endless supply of ground coffee.
“Sei ned so augriaht!” I read out loud, which elicited a guffaw out of Katharina, who remarked that I was practically a Burgenländer. Finally tempted by the crispy smell of the pastries, I took my eyes off of my book and leaned forward in my seat, my head hovering over the basket’s contents.
“Do you know what these are?” Asked Katharina. “They’re called Grammelpogatscherln.”
“Grammar-poor Gauchos?” Katharina winced at my pronunciation and rested her face against her right hand.
“Close enough. Anyway, this is a typical Burgenland dish,” she picked one of the pastries up and held it between her index finger and thumb, “and it’s made out of animal lard, or Grammeln.”
“Oh, no. I’ve some bad news, Katharina,” I plucked the pastry out of Katharina’s fingers and held it in my own. “I’m vegan.”
“What? Since when?” Katharina panicked; vegans were as common as unicorns in Burgenland. I took a look at the pastry, which was shaped like a croissant and stuck to my fingers the way healthy foods don’t.
“I’m kidding,” I broke the lard-roll in half and popped a piece in my mouth, “my lifestyle is nowhere near that disgusting.” The outer layer of the pastry melted in my mouth in fat-flavored goodness.
We munched on the Grammar-poor Gauchos for the next half-hour, chatting and waiting for Katharina’s seventeen-year-old daughter Anja to come back from school. We were going to the town concert in the early evening to watch Anja sing with the rest of the Rechnitz choir and then head out to Lucky Town, an American Western theme park right outside of Rechnitz. Katharina assured me that the locale was a sight to behold, though she didn’t specify whether for better or for worse.
Katharina’s daughter Anja let her arrival be known around four-thirty by slamming open the front door, charging through the hallway of the house and into the living room, running past us into the kitchen, grabbing a cup from the cabinet before turning around panting and fixing her gaze on me.
“I don’t live here,” I introduced myself.
Anja filled up the cup with water from the sink, chugged it in one go, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, patted down her sunflower-patterned sundress, and walked back into the living room. I shook her extended hand, and she sat down next to her mother across from me.
“Sorry about that,” she apologized in perfect English about passing right by us. “It’s super hot outside and I was going to die if I didn’t get something to drink. Oh, and I’m Anja.”
Katharina pushed the glass of water she had in front of her to Anja, who greedily gulped down that glass as well. Anja shared her mother’s nose and her downward sloping eyebrows that gave the impression that she either felt sorry or embarrassed for you, but Anja’s beady blue eyes darted around everywhere in contrast to the relaxed and constant gaze of Katharina.
“And I’m Hans.” Anja gave her mother a sideways glance and giggled.
“Actually? Or is that some kind of joke?” Katharina scolded Anja with a friendly flick on the back of her head.
“The last time I checked, it was still my name,” I smiled. Anja, nodding, took the purple hairband off her wrist and put her hair in a ponytail.
“And what do you do? Where are you from? How long have you been in Austria? Do you like it here? Rechnitz is quite a boring town, isn’t it? Have you seen the goats outside? Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Hans is our teaching assistant at the HTL,” Katharina growled, “and he’s currently trying to enjoy these wonderful Grammelpogatscherln that I prepared for him but is instead being pestered by a nosey teenage girl who should probably be getting ready for her concert tonight.”
“Wait, Mom, he’s not coming to the concert tonight, is he?”
“Of course he is. He’s our honored guest, and I’ve invited him to go to Lucky Town with us afterwards,” harrumphed Katharina. In response, Anja went on a rant in German about how she was so embarrassed that I would be hearing her sing and that she couldn’t believe her own mother would humiliate Anja so before noticing the time and running upstairs to change.
“She’s a character,” I told Katharina.
“Took after her father – not me!”
Katharina got up to head towards the car outside, and I remained in my seat for a minute to stare at the collage of photographs that covered the corner walls surrounding the dining table. Among the smiling faces and picturesque scenery was a plain, wooden cross hanging to the far right of the company of photos and a lone, framed portrait of a lederhosen-clad, middle-aged man whose infectious grin resembled Anja’s. I walked out of the front door right as Anja stormed out behind me in a white blouse and black skirt. She called shotgun, but Katharina told her otherwise.
The drive to the town hall took ten minutes, and in the meantime I asked Katharina if Rechnitz had any historical significance.
“There used to be a castle, but it was completely destroyed during the Second World War,” answered Katharina. “The town’s never restored it – the cost being the biggest hurdle – but outside of that…”
“Welcome to Rechnitz,” Anja chimed in. “If it’s not broken, it doesn’t exist.”
“What!” Sputtered Katharina. “Rechnitz is a very… nice town!” An argument between mother and daughter over the appeal of their quaint hometown broke out, and I watched our car pass by a young mother push a baby stroller uphill and an elderly couple hold hands while carrying a grocery bag in each hand. Once Katharina pulled up into the parking lot of the town hall, Anja bounced out of the car with her black purse in one hand and her cell phone in the other. She gave Katharina a kiss on the cheek before running off to meet up with her friends in the choir who were waving to her in the distance. I followed Anja’s wavy red hair bob up and down in the wind for a few seconds and then turned to Katharina, whose smile trailed after her daughter before focusing back onto me.
“Schau ma amoi?” Asked Katharina.
“Schau ma amoi.”
We made our way to the entrance, where right outside the front doors the Rechnitz marching band had assembled and were playing a medley of Austrian folk songs, Hungarian oldies, and pop songs from the 80s. I noticed one of my students from the HLW playing the flute and waved to her, who blushed and waved back during a pause in the flute section. After the band’s short performance had concluded, we stepped inside the town hall and walked straight into the spacious-but-packed auditorium. Having spotted the remaining open seats in the back of the auditorium, we walked past the front rows consisting of gruff, aged men sporting tailored two-piece suits and powdered, tight-lipped women wearing their hair down. Instead, we squeezed ourselves into the last row, a toddler sitting on his mother’s lap and picking his nose to my right and two young girls wearing matching red pants to Katharina’s left. A stage had been erected at the front, on which the choir had already taken their place, and to the side stood a blond, heavy-set woman behind a podium far too small for her. The few people that trickled in after us were forced to settle for the standing space near the windows in the corners of the auditorium.
The blond lady spent the first twenty minutes thanking the mayor, the vice-mayor, the treasurer, Rechnitz’s civil engineers, the town priest of the Catholic church, the former mayor, the former vice-mayor, the marching band, the concert organizers, the Rechnitz Women’s Organization for funding the choir’s trip to Großpetersdorf last month, the Rechnitz high school choir club, the pianist, four former choir leaders who were in attendance today, the town gardener, the local gasthof for sponsoring the concert, her husband Hannes for hosting the after-party, the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, and a well-cooked schnitzel.
“Finally,” I whispered to Katharina, “we’ll get to hear the choir.”
Instead, over the next forty-five minutes awards were handed out by the current mayor to each choir member who had been a part of the group for longer than fifteen years, which meant sixteen of the thirty members were called up individually to receive a paper certificate, take a photo with the mayor, listen to a short speech given by the current leader of the choir on his or her contributions over the years, embrace the choir leader and mayor, shake the extended hands of the vice-mayor and former mayors, and waddle back to their place on the stage.
“And now must be the performance,” I murmured to myself. After the last member had received her proper dues and shaken the hands of town politicians, ten members of the choir, including Anja, walked off the stage and into the waiting room in the back.
“The choir doesn’t all perform together,” Katharina explained. “So we have to sit through a few of the songs before Anja comes back out and sings with her smaller section.”
“Oh. How many songs are we talking about?”
“Two or three.”
Eight songs later, Anja came back out onto the stage and belted out the tenor for a beautiful Brahms piece. She sang two more songs, the concert was over, and the three of us met up at the entrance of the building. Katharina immediately hugged her daughter, who saw her giggling friends and squirmed in Katharina’s arms for a few seconds. Anja gave up after a while, however, and half-heartedly squeezed her mother back.
“Are you done embarrassing me in front of everyone, Mom?”
“Honey, those songs you sang were beautiful. You were amazing.” Anja’s face turned the color of her hair, and Anja caught a glimpse of me smiling at the interaction between her and her mother.
“What are you looking at, Bluza!”
“Anja!” Katharina pulled Anja off of her and shook her fist at her daughter.
“What?” Anja rolled her eyes.
“Don’t ‘what?’ me, young lady!” Scolded Katharina. “Don’t you dare use that kind of language with our guest!” Katharina stomped off towards the car, and we followed her a few meters behind.
“In case you were wondering,” Anja informed me right before we got to the car, “I called you a big dummy.” She shrugged and stuck her palm out in mock earnest. “Which you are.”
The drive from Rechnitz’s town hall to Lucky Town took a little under twenty minutes. When we arrived at Lucky Town, the sun was close to setting and available parking spots beginning to dwindle. On the other side of the row of bushes behind where we parked was the preparation for an American Civil War reenactment. I wandered onto to the battlefield where a gaunt, bearded Union soldier told me to get lost in a thick Burgenland accent. I rejoined Katharina and Anja and headed toward the wooden fortress two hundred meters away. A banner hanging from the wide entrance read “LUCKY TOWN: SEASON OPENING.”
Inside Lucky Town, rows of stores and shops lined the walls and surrounded forty or so tables, most of which were occupied with families feasting on spare ribs and burgers or groups of young adults pounding the table with open palms and downing rounds of schnapps. At the opposite end from the entrance, a live band performed “Sweet Home Alabama,” and Austrians wearing gallon hats and cowboy boots line-danced on the stage in front of the band. We took a table near the entrance, and Katharina ordered drinks and ribs for the three of us. While our food and drinks were being prepared, Katharina ordered Anja to show me around the theme park, much to the chagrin of Anja.
“But Mom, do I have to?”
“Of course you have to, why would I tell you to do something if I didn’t mean that you had to do it?” Anja threw her hands up and instructed me to accompany her with a nod of her head. We walked along the inner rim of Lucky Town, with its pubs, dining areas, and souvenir shops hidden inside buildings labeled “Uncle Sam’s Star-spangled Saloon,” “Wild West Warehouse,” and “Lucky Town Slammer.” Towards the end of the tour I made the mistake of entering the jail, in which six- and seven-year-olds dressed in cowboy outfits and wielding orange-tipped revolvers awaited unsuspecting visitors to ambush and lock inside the jail cell.
“Gib mir dein Handy!” A pudgy Austrian boy screamed in my face while I tried to hold off the torrent of his minions climbing on me and grabbing at the contents of my pockets. Anja stood outside and watched the scene unfold through the window.
“Could you help me out here?” I called to her as I threw another seven-year-old cowboy onto the floor, the boy landing with a thud and picking himself up to charge at me with reinforced vigor. Another clung to my left calf and shouted for the others to get my right leg.
“Give me a second, I need to first Snapchat this to my friends.”
“GIB MIR DEIN HANDY!” The chubster screamed in my face once more.
“YOUR PARENTS DON’T LOVE YOU,” I shouted back at the boy, and my hands steadfastly holding on to my phone and wallet in my pockets, I dragged the rambunctious cowboys and myself out of the jail cell. The troublemakers let go of me as soon I brought them out into the pubic, and they slinked back into their lair waving their plastic guns and gurgling threats from behind the jail walls. I threw up my hands and looked up at Anja, who laughed and replied that I had made her Snapstory proud. We trudged back to where Katharina sat and our piping-hot plates of spare ribs and three, cold glasses of radlers awaited us.
We ate and talked for the next hour and half, during which I spotted a pink-faced father scolding his wailing five-year-old son for wandering away and getting lost. I nudged my head in their direction to Anja and Katharina.
“I was that kid,” I said in between cleaning my hands of the remaining barbeque sauce in my fingernails.
“Were you?” Katharina glanced back and forth at the boy and me, curious to hear where this story was going.
“Whenever my family and I went to the museum of natural science in my Japanese hometown of Utsunomiya, I’d run off and wander from one experiment station to the next until I realized – oh, hey, where’d my parents go?”
The puffy-eyed boy sniffled and stopped crying for a few seconds before breaking out into tears again.
“And so what I did at first was, I’d go looking for them on my own, which was neither success nor a good idea, mostly because I have no sense of direction. Then, I’d be found by one of the pretty ladies working at the museum and taken to the front desk, where the ladies would make an announcement on the intercom about a lost child. The first few times, my parents were furious. Worried, sure, but also furious.
“Then, because I’d always keep getting lost every time we went to the museum, I stopped bothering to look for my parents and started heading straight to the front desk. The people there would give me candy, too, which was always a pretty sweet perk.”
“What’d your parents do?” Anja asked.
“Oh, they wised up and quit taking me to the museum.”
The live band had stopped playing American country music altogether and were in the midst of an hour-long performance consisting solely of Hungarian folksongs. We had finished our food and drinks, so I suggested we leave. Katharina was eager to oblige.
“We’re leaving? Already?” Anja voiced her displeasure. “But we were just getting settled in!”
Katharina strolled to the car in silence while I fielded a bombardment of questions from Anja.
“Anyway, does this mean you’re going to be stopping by Rechnitz often?”
“Not at all. First and last time.”
“Boo. You suck.”
We piled into the car and left the parking lot, the pulsating lights and noise of Lucky Town growing dimmer and dimmer until we were all alone on the road headed to Pinkafeld to drop me off at my boarding house. Katharina asked if I had enjoyed my day, to which I responded that I did. The needle of the speedometer held at a comfortable seventy kilometers per hour, and although she didn’t say anything, Katharina wore a tired smile on her face. I looked out of my window at the shadows of the flowers and bushes I wanted to smell and touch.
When we were twenty kilometers outside of Pinkafeld, Katharina pointed to the outlines of a baby bump on the darkened horizon to the right of the front windshield.
“Can you see that? That’s Geschriebenstein, the tallest mountain in Burgenland at eight hundred and something meters.”
“Mom, that’s a hill, not a mountain,” yawned Anja.
“Young lady, I swear, you back-talk me one more time—”
The hum of the engine droned on along the flat, winding road, and I rolled down the window to stick my head out despite Katharina advising me against it on the grounds that I wasn’t a dog. Anja reached over from the backseat to turn on the radio, and an American pop song began to play inside the red Volkswagen. The warm, dry evening wind blew on my face, and for a brief moment, I imagined myself ten thousand kilometers away.